Downtime

It happens to us all, we go into our studios to write some music and it’s just not happening.  Sometimes you can push through and end up getting back on track, but other times you’re just not feeling it no matter what you do.  Or perhaps you’re just stuck in a small creative rut for a few days, but still feel like being at least some what productive when it comes to music making.

I’m a big fan of using times like this to take care of all the boring bits and tasks that go hand in hand with making music these days, especially since most of us are using computers.  A lot of these things are common sense, but it’s amazing how long some people put this stuff off.  (Sometimes until it’s too late!) Doing them when you’re just not feeling creative is a great way to make sure that when you ARE back in the mood to write music, you don’t need to stop and worry about things that aren’t essential to the process.  So these are my suggestions of things to address in your downtime:

– Back Ups.  We all know how important it is to back up our data, but it’s something that often gets forgotten about until it’s too late. In addition to having all my data backed up to a second (and third) hard drive, I also have important documents and programs stored online, and burned to DVDr.  It’s important to use multiple formats for your back ups, and to not put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak.  Doesn’t do you any good to have your data on 4 hard drives in your house, if one night it burns to the ground.

It’s a good time to back up any hardware or software synths too.  Sysex backups, or VST and AU presets, things like that.  Collect them in one place, and make sure you include them with all your other data backups.

– Clean up.  Boo hiss, I know, no one likes to clean house very much, do they?  Aside from making things look nicer, keeping a relatively clean studio can also help your gear last longer.  Dust can clog faders, get into computers and laptops and cause heating issues, and make audio jacks (like on the back of your soundcard) gunk up faster.  A can of compressed air, a vacuum, and a small car detailing brush can get rid of most of it in no time at all.  Every couple of years it’s worth opening up your computer or laptop and getting the dust out of there as well, especially around vents and fans.  Follow the appropriate safety precautions of course.

Something like Deoxit can be used to clean all the cable connectors or faders in your studio, helping them last longer and work better for years.  Finger prints accumulate on everything, an ever so slightly damp cloth can remove those in most cases.  I find that micro-fibre cloths work the best for this (and cleaning computer monitors without any chemicals), just be sure to never put them in the clothes dryer, or else they end up leaving lint on everything. Air dry only!  You can clean your trackpad and keyboard with those Mr. Clean Magic Erasers.  Ok, that’s enough for the Suzy Homemaker tips. 🙂

– Update.  Make sure all your apps and drivers are up to day.  Run a fresh virus or adware scan, defrag your hard drive, make sure you have copies of the latest PDF manuals for your gear.

– Uninstall.  I like to test out different software demos, or freebie synths and plug-ins now and then, just like a lot of you I’m sure.  Sometimes they become valuable tools, other times I never use them again.  This is a good chance to go through and remove and uninstall anything you’re not using.  Makes browsing the plug-ins and synths you DO use a lot easier, and helps rule out any potential DAW conflicts down the road.  This same goes for any non-music making tools you might be using.

– Reinstall.  This one will be controversial, but roughly once or twice a year I like to reinstall all the software on my computer from scratch, including the OS.  Typically I do it after I’ve had a few days to test a new OS update, something like a service pack or a point revision of OSX.  It’s probably a little overkill, but I feel it’s worth it to make sure I’m running a clean and stream-lined system.  For me at least, it doesn’t even take that long, maybe 2-3 hours.  Most of that time is spent installing Omnisphere’s 6 DVDs worth of content anyway.

To speed up the process, I keep a folder on my computer where I store the latest installers of all my programs, as well as any custom presets, manuals, or preference files I might need.  That way, everything is always in one place.  Right before I wipe the OS to install again, I’ll first go through all my apps, plug ins, and utilities in this folder to make sure they are all the latest version.  That way I’m only installing up to date things when I’m done installing the fresh OS.


(Click for larger image)

I gain back a little hard drive space this way as well, though typically not enough to make the process worth it for just this reason.  Also, and it might just be placebo, a fresh system always seems to run snappier to me too.  I’ve never measured it, but it definitely feels that way to me.  Anyway, I’m sure some people will balk at the idea, but it’s worth considering doing every now and then, even if only once every few years.

– Organize.  This might be as simple as putting all your manuals in one place, or as complicated as tagging and naming all your favorite synth patches.  Sort and name any samples you’ve been collecting, make sure your records are set up in a way that you can quickly find what you need when you get an idea.  Go through any notes you might have scribbled in the heat of a moment and see if you still need them.  If you’ve got some unfinished songs you’ve been hanging on to, see if they’re worth saving still, or would it be better to just pull out your favorite bits to use in other songs?  Anything that can speed up the process of making music when you’re in the mood, and help you avoid getting bogged down.

Admittedly, none of this stuff is very fun, and some people actually thrive better in the chaos of a random workspace anyway.  But with a little bit of time spent getting these things out of the way, you can insure that your music making sessions will be fluid and go much smoother when it really matters.  Plus, it sure beats wasting a day outside of the studio or spending your time frustrated that you’re out of ideas!

——————–

In other news, I was asked to do a DJ mix for the FriskyRadio.com 5 year anniversary next month.  Just recorded it this past weekend, so check back soon for details on when it will air.  Expect some grooving downtempo perfect for the upcoming summer, probably one of the best mixes I’ve done in the last couple of years if I do say so myself.

Until then, peace and beats,

Tarekith

Vespers – Preparing your tracks for mastering

DJ Vespers runs an Ableton Live training website, with lots of great videos on how to use Live and other music production techniques.  Recently he asked me for some advice on how to properly prepare your tracks in Ableton Live to send to a mastering engineer.  Here’s the video:

http://vespers.ca/how-to-export-your-song-for-mastering-6-essential-tips/

While you’re there, take a look at some of his other videos, lots of good information available for free.

One thing he didn’t have time to cover in the mastering prep video concerns sample rates.  When you export your project, export it at the same sample rate you worked at.  There’s usually very little to be gained by upsampling during the mixdown in Ableton Live, which only uses a so so sample rate coversion in order to be practical for live use.  So if you’re writing your song at 44.1kHz, just export a 24 bit, 44.1kHz file to send to the mastering engineer.

Ableton Live & APC40 Live PA set up

A few people over the last couple of weeks have asked me how I use Ableton Live and the Akai APC40 to perform my live pa’s.  I’ve covered it briefly on the Ableton forums over the years, but I figured it was time to go into a little more detail.

While I tend to write brand new material for my hardware live sets, my Ableton Live sets are my chance to perform the studio tunes I’ve written and released during the previous couple of years.  To make things coincide with the APC layout, and to keep the set from being too complex, I use 8 tracks of audio clips in my Live sets.  To make it easier to remember which sounds are on which track live, I use the following layout for all my tracks:

Track 1 – Kick and Snare
Track 2 – Percussion
Track 3 – Cymbals and Hi Hats
Track 4 – Bassline
Track 5 – Lead (synth or guitar)
Track 6 – Synth 1
Track 7 – Synth 2
Track 8 – Pads and Fills

Tracks 6 and 7 are basically for any sounds that don’t fit into the other categories, things like secondary synth lines, supporting guitar parts, weird effects or vocal samples.

So the first thing I do when prepping material for my sets, is to open the original song project file and start combining everything down to these 8 stems.  One of the things I’ve learned over the years, is to not try and include everything single sound from the original song in my stems.  It makes the overall sound too busy in a live setting, and often it’s better to just focus on the strongest, and most important parts of the song.  So a lot of fills, and sounds that only were used occasionally in the original song will get deleted.

Once I decide on what sounds will be part of the 8 stems, the next thing I do is work on making these into 32 bar loops.  I grew up performing with grooveboxes, so I’m used to working with loopy material and creating the song structure, builds, and peaks on the fly.  I find that 32 bars is the best compromise between the loops being too short and repetitive, or being too long really not giving me a chance to interact with them to create something live.  Typically in a live set, I’m only going to loop each clip 3-4 times before moving on to the next song, so it works out well.

In this phase I’m basically trying to condense the song into the strongest 32 bars I can, so that when all 8 stems/clips are playing at once, it’s more or less the peak of the song.  Mainly because I find it’s easier to play with the song structure on the fly this way.  I have a lot of tools to make complex parts simpler, loud parts quieter, and important sounds less in the forefront if I want.  More on that later though.

As part of this process of paring things down to 32 bars, I really try and re-use my programmed fills from the studio version to make things more exciting and less loopy sounding.  For instance, in the studio version, I have programmed a kick and snare fill every 16 bars.  When combining everything down to the live versions, I’ll pull the best of these fills and put them every 8 bars maybe.  The strongest and most exciting fill be placed at the end of the 32 bars as well, so that when the clip loops, it does so in a way that avoids being too monotonous or boring.

The last thing I do before rendering these stems, is to make sure that they actually do loop and repeat smoothly.  There’s no clicks or pops, and that no matter which combination of the stems is muted, it sounds natural and flows nicely.  I don’t want people to think “oh right, that’s where his song looped and repeats again” if I can help it.

Once that’s done, I render each stem as a 24bit/44.1kHz wav file, and name it with the stem type and the song name, i.e. “Bassline – Disappear.wav”.  This just makes it easier to quickly find the audio file if I need to later on.

(Click image above to see full sized image)

From here it’s time to organize the live set into one Ableton project in Session View.  As I mentioned, I use 8 tracks, and each scene in Live is a different song.  Sometimes if a song has a solo that doesn’t fit into my stems, or maybe I have a really long drop I like, I might create a second scene for just those parts.  In the screenshot above you can see I did this for the song “Tidal”.  It has a very strong solo I recorded in the studio, and I want to make sure I don’t accidentally trigger it until I’ve built up to it appropriately, so it’s on it’s own scene.  It’s a way for me to visually know that that clip is special in some way, and to not trigger it as if were a normal stem.  When I say visually, I mean both by looking at the laptop screen, or by looking at the APC40’s grid buttons.

So, the next step it to put all my stems on the appropriate tracks and scenes, name all the clips and the scene, and give each song it’s own color (both the clips and scenes).  I’m a visual person, so if I DO need to glance at the laptop to see where I am in the set, the colors help me break up the set in a way that I can quickly see what I need to.  I also put the song tempo in the scene name. Because my downtempo sets can cover a large range of tempos, this lets me know to change the set tempo to match the original song tempo.  I do this by assigning the Cue Volume knob on the APC to Live’s tempo field.  Generally if I know the next song is at a faster tempo, I’ll slowly start increasing the tempo during the current song to make the tempo changes less noticeable.

The next thing I do is warp all the clips.  The drum clips usually get warped with Beats mode, basslines with Tones, and everything else typically Complex Pro, though admittedly it depends on the sounds too.  I’ll use whatever sounds best over a +/-10 BPM range.  I double check that each clip is set to loop properly, and that Live guessed the correct location for the start marker (sometimes it offsets this a tiny bit, which throws everything off).

The last step in prepping the clips is to basically do a mixdown of each scene to make sure everything plays back at the right volume, and is consistent song to song.  I like to have the faders up all the way on the APC for this, so I can easily slam faders up and down on stage without worrying about boosting too much.  So I’ll set the volume fader for each track in Live to max, and use the clip volume controls to adjust the volume of the audio.  This is a great way to give the whole set a more cohesive feel as well, since I can redo the mixdowns to be similar song to song.  Typically I try to leave about 4-5dB of headroom on the master channel when prepping the set this way.  I do put Live’s Limiter on the master channel as well, but only for catching stray peaks that might happen when I perform, mainly from effects usage.  Rare that it happens, but better to be safe than sorry.

When it comes to effects in the set, I have 2 return tracks in the set, one for reverb and one for delay.  I also have a custom effects rack on each track, and this is made up of 8 of my favorite DJ EFX from the packs I’ve released here:

http://tarekith.com/assets/TarekithDJEFXv8.5.zip

As you can see the rack has a high pass and low pass filter, some gating effects, some chorus and ambient generating effects, and more delays (I love delays).  I use the same rack on every track, again, just to be consistent so I know what I’m tweaking no matter what track I’m adjusting.  I can do the whole live set without looking at the laptop, so this type of consistency just helps me avoid any unexpected things happening as I jump around the set looking only at the APC40.

And that is how the Live Project is set up for my Live PA’s.

The APC40 I use to control the set is basically set up to use the default mapping it comes with right out of the box.  The grid buttons launch clips, the faders control track volumes, and the solo and mute buttons work as you’d expect.  I use the Track Control knobs to control what feeds Send 1 (Delay) and Send 2 (Reverb).  Because I only have one Effects Rack on each track, the Device Control knobs control my track effects depending on which Track is currently selected.  The only non-standard mapping is the tempo control I mentioned earlier, where the APC’s Cue Level knob is assigned to global tempo.

Also, as you can see above, I have colored the Clip Stop buttons red (with a Sharpie, nothing fancy).  This helps remind which buttons are the Track Select buttons, and which will stop my audio at the wrong time.  Honestly, this is pretty much my only complaint with the APC40, I still don’t understand why Akai didn’t use red LEDs for the Clip Stop buttons.  Red means stop, green means go, duh.  🙂

From here it’s just a matter of performing the set.  I use track volumes and muting to define the song structure on the fly, create drops and build ups, and slowly morph from one song to the next.  Track effects let me alter my audio loops in different ways, and with my Delay and Reverb sends along with my Weird Wash effect (in the track effects rack), I can turn any sound into a texture or a pad.

Probably my favorite part of this set up, is that I can do a whole set without looking at the laptop, it turns  the APC40 into almost a groovebox.  I don’t feel like I’m using software and a MIDI controller at all.  In the future I’m thinking about using Kapture Pad on my iPhone or iPad as well.  That way I can use a lot of effects to mangle the set into weirdness, and with a press of a button (errr…. on the screen) bring it all back to normal instantly.  Haven’t had a chance to play with this yet, but it’s definitely something I’m keeping in mind for the next time I do a software based live set.

Anyway, that’s how I do my Ableton Live sets using the Akai APC40.  I’m happy to answer any questions if I didn’t explain something clearly enough, just post it in the Comments section below.

Edit:

Oops, I forgot to post a link to one my sets that I did via the above:

Downtempo Live PA

 

Machinedrum DJ Set Vol. 2

Machinedrum DJ Set Vol. 2

This is the second in a series of collaborations initiated by the Elektron-Users.com community.  The basic idea is that each user contributes a pattern they wrote using only the Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1.  Then, users of the forum can perform a sort of combination DJ and live set using only those patterns.

Unfortunately I was pretty busy around the pattern submission dead-line, so none of the songs in this set were written by me.  Still, it was great fun performing the set, so thanks to all of the producers who let me use and modify their patterns so I could still participate.

This set was recorded live in one pass on 05-07-2011 using only the Machinedrum recorded direct via a RME Fireface400.  2dB of limiting was applied to tame one large peak during the set, otherwise no additional processing was applied.

Here’s the tracklist:

00:00 – Dubathonic – SubTerra
03:10 – Catabolic – Biz’n’Veetz
07:52 – Catabolic – Escalate
12:04 – djd_oz – Monopoly
15:37 – Jonathon Doe – Derive
19:10 – djd_oz – Jenga
22:44 – Jonathon Doe – Fraktur
26:23 – djd_oz – Scrabble

The sysex files of my edits to the original patterns can found here:

http://tarekith.com/assets/MD02_Edits.zip

Here’s a link to the first Machinedrum DJ/Live set I did as well:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith_-_MD_DJ_Set.mp3


 

25% Off Online Mastering

Hi everyone,
I had a couple of very large projects this week get pushed back to a later date, and as a result I’m sitting here with a lot of unbooked time in the studio this week.  So, to keep things rolling, I’m going to be offering 25% off my normal online mastering rate from now until Saturday, May 7th.  This is a great chance to save some money if you’ve got some older tracks you always wanted nice and polished. Also, just in case you ever wanted to put a face to my name, I’ve recorded a quick introduction video for the studio.  You can view it, and the details on how to prep and upload any files for me at:

http://innerportalstudio.com

Peace and beats,
Tarekith