Soft to Hard?

Since I started talking about my recent work with the Octatrack, I’ve been getting a lot of people asking me about making the switch from software based audio production and performance, to a hardware based set up. In some ways I’m probably not the best person to ask, since I was the opposite and came from a hardware background and eventually got into software. But I’ll try and cover some of the more obvious differences for those thinking about trying to work a little differently than they’re used to.

The first thing that will be pretty apparent to most people is that you end up relying a lot less on your eyes when you’re writing. Sounds dumb since we’re making music with these tools, but I think a lot of people really never realize how visually oriented you are when writing music with software. Not saying it’s good or bad necessarily, but it can take some people awhile to get used to just doing things based on what they hear.

Sort of on that same note, with most hardware you’re going to have to get used to what we call “menu diving”. Obviously, it’s just too expensive for most hardware manufacturers to put fancy or large LCDs on their gear, so you end up doing a lot of your sound design and sequencing looking at smaller displays. The good manufacturers do their best to minimize this and make it easier on the end user, but sometimes it can feel a little tedious. I’m used to it mainly, so it doesn’t usually bother me most of the time.  It’s not all bad though, as I’ll talk about shortly.

Another difference is the amount of detail you’ll likely find yourself putting into your music. Not saying that you still can’t get detailed, but a lot times you’ll find that really detailed editing of your songs can take a LOT longer. Some people have the patience for it, especially some of the MPC based guys. Personally I find that it just makes me focus more on creating the individual parts of my song stronger right from the get go, versus relying on micro editing after the fact to provide the ear candy.

In fact this is probably one of my favorite things about working with hardware. It’s usually easier to just try and rerecord a part by playing it correctly, versus having to go back after the fact and edit any mistakes out. Forces you to be a better musician, and not a better programmer.

Ultimately I think this leads people to realize that you end up trying to do most of your sound manipulation in real-time, instead of drawing automation curves (for instance). So in many respects I find that hardware-based workflows tend to lead the user into a more performance oriented method of creating songs. I think this is one reason the whole groovebox thing took off for some companies. A perfect package for creating and performing music, fitting the needs of both the studio and touring musician.

Another thing I think that really makes working with hardware unique is that you really begin to look at your gear like a musical instrument, even if it doesn’t have obvious performance oriented controls like knobs or keys.

For example, I remember my Akai S3000XL sampler surprised me on this front. Tiny LCD screen and lots of buttons, and rack-mounted no less.  Doing anything on it generally required lots of menu diving and button presses, usually repetitively over and over again. After awhile though, you find that you’re doing these really complicated key combinations very quickly, without really thinking about it. You get in the zone while working, where you can realize complex musical ideas and the interface doesn’t get in the way, despite it not being what most would consider the most musically oriented way of working.  Your muscle memory takes over and you often don’t realize how complex what you’re doing really is.

The final difference I think that really will stand out to most people, is the lack of presets. Or maybe I should say useable presets. Most hardware groove boxes or workstations come with a decent amount of presets, but honestly most are kind of cheesy and dated sounding in my opinion. You’ll likely end up spending more time making your own sounds from scratch than you would with most software synths, many of which come with hundreds if not thousands of useable sounds.

Again, not a bad thing in my opinion, but it’s not for everyone. I could go on with examples of how hardware workflows are different from software, but I think these are the most obvious ones, at least from my perspective.

A few people have asked me for recommendations on what to buy if they want to get into making music with hardware.  I’m obviously a huge fan of the Elektron gear, though I realize that those boxes are at a premium and some people might not want to invest that much until the know if they like the workflow of hardware.

In that respect, I think the Korg EMX-1 is probably one of the best choices for most people to get into the hardware side of things.  Decent drum sounds, solidly built, portable, and you can easily do complete songs on it with just a little perseverance.  The synth section will probably seem super basic to most people, but there’s more depth there than a lot of people give it credit for.  It’s one of those synths where the controls have huge range, so often just tiny movements can have a radical change in the sound.  Definitely something you don’t want to give up on too early.

If anyone has any questions about writing music with hardware versus software, or maybe has some other examples of the differences (good or bad), please leave them in the comments, thanks!

 

The iOS DJ?

Ever since the iPad was first released, I’ve been intrigued about using it for DJing. Light, portable, decent storage, and more than enough power for basic DJing. Plus, for your average DJ, more than enough screen space for controls to handle mixing two tracks. Of course you can also use one of the many iPad DJ controllers coming out now too, though to be honest I feel that if you’re going to carry one of those, you might as well just use a laptop and controller anyway.

So for awhile now I’ve been eyeing what’s out there, reading reviews, and now and then playing with a couple of the more popular apps dedicated to DJing. I’m not even going to attempt to try and cover all the options available for DJing on iOS devices, instead I’m going to focus on two of the more popular options, Meta.dj and djay. Both can cover basic mixing duties, but do so in ways different enough that there’s little overlap in how they work.
Before I start though, it’s worth talking about the one thing that I think still is a major limitation in the platform for DJing. Namely, all iOS devices can only output a single stereo channel, which means its impossible to cue your tracks while outputting a stereo feed for your audience. Currently the most popular workaround is to instead output a mono channel for the main out, and a mono channel for the cue out using a splitter cable. I’ve been using the popular one from Griffin, which works both with djay and Meta.dj (plus others too):

http://www.algoriddim.com/djay-ipad/accessories/dj-cable

It’s an ok workaround but probably not the most ideal solution. Still, you work with what you have, and on that front it does work pretty well as long as you like mono signals 🙂 A couple of other DJ apps (I.E. DJ Player) let you use something like an iPhone or iPad touch to stream your cue channel from but I haven’t had a chance to play with those yet.

So, first up is probably the most popular DJ app out right now, djay from Algoriddim. The interface will be familiar to most DJs, two virtual turntables are front and center. Buttons around these let you access your iTunes library and playlists, the EQ section, a loop screen, cue points, and in some of the recent updates 6 different effect variations. There’s also the ever present crossfader, and some small channel faders along with decent channel meters too.

The decks can be configure to show you your iTunes album artwork for songs, more or less like a regular vinyl record. Very handy for those people more visually inclined. The effects are pretty well done if a little basic, stutters, gates, delays, flanger, etc. The 3-band EQ is a little harsh to my ears, they give almost full cut when down all the way, but that makes it hard to do subtle EQing too. Loops and cue points can be stored for all your tracks too, which is really handy.

In many ways djay sort of reminds me of using Traktor, most of the basic functions for DJing are there, but it tends to rely on sort of an old school paradigm of mixing. There’s the option to sync tracks automatically, but its still up to you to start them on time. Pressing the sync button again will line up the tempos again, but it also advances the song a quarter note in case you have the tracks in sync, but the phrasing is off. There’s tempo nudging buttons to help get things in sync, but I find them to be really small for how often I use them.

Honestly, this is sort of thing is my biggest complaint with djay overall. The most important functions for a digital DJ are given some of the least screen real estate, while the pretty, but largely pointless, virtual decks always take up so much room. For instance, the loops, EQ, effects, and your cues are all accessed via different views of the same tiny pop up screen. So it’s impossible to set loop points while EQing, or add and manipulate effects while navigating your cues. You can only access one of these functions at a time, while the decks which you’ll rarely touch sit there taking up most of the screen real estate.

There’s a lot of really nice functions in the app, but too much of it is dedicated to looking nice (and old school) versus taking advantage of the screen real estate and touch interface of the iPad. By far my biggest complaint with the app.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Meta.dj from Sound Trends, which aims to reinvent DJing based on the specifics of a touch interface. If djay is like Traktor, then Meta.dj is like Ableton Live. Instead of just focusing on a traditional DJ interface, you also have access to built in drum and synth patterns (with more available as in-app purchases), a loop mangler and playback device, and all of your audio is synced to a global master clock at all times. You can up to 4 of the above devices in a project, in any combination you want.

Meta.dj automatically scans your tracks when you add them to a project, finding the tempo and beat placement fairly accurately in my experience. Like djay, you can set loops and cue points for each track too, though these are project specific. Meta.dj also has some really nice performance based effects that utilize an XY touchpad interface for tweaking. However, these are added to each song on a case by case basic, and not on a mixer channel as is typically for most DJ programs. This means that if you want to create a new projects with the same songs, you’ll need to redo all of your cues, loops, effects and beat-grids all over again.

As a result, this means that prepping your tracks for DJing can take awhile (again, like Live) and it’s not possible to share these settings across multiple projects in Meta.dj. So instead of having the app remember the settings for all your tracks and make them available any time you use them in a project, you basically need to make a one project with all the songs you plan on DJing with in one single project. All your tracks are accessible by scrolling across the bottom of the screen in a project, though the names of the songs get truncated making finding what you want difficult at times.

Mixing in Meta.dj is done via nice and simple volume sliders for each of the 4 devices, or via crossfader that works for the top or bottom two devices if you want. Sadly, there’s no metering at all, so you’re on your own to guess the correct levels while performing, with clipping from too hot signals possible if you’re not listening closely.

Meta.dj is an interesting concept overall, a real solid attempt to blend DJing and live performance into a single interface that uses a touchscreen in the best way possible. I didn’t really find the drum and synth loops to be my thing though, and since I use hardware for my live sets, I didn’t really have a need to prep my own material to use in the app that way either. Still, it’s nice you can work this way if you want.

As a strictly DJ tool, I’m really torn on how effective I found it. Lack of metering and difficulty in finding the tracks I wanted to play by scrolling the bottom bar with truncated names were real downers for me. The effects are nice and the beat detection was impressive, but without meters it was really hard to do a more traditional DJ set with this app. It’s one of those tools where prep work is everything (again, like Ableton Live). With better track library management and some real meters. I could see this being a really useful app. Luckily, it seems the developers listen to their user base and do frequent updates so perhaps we’ll see some improvement in the future.

I have to admit, that one of the biggest downsides of Meta.dj is that it’s so different that often times I found myself reaching for the manual, only to find there isn’t one. A quick start guide is linked to from their forums, but other than that you’re sort of on your own to figure out how things work. There’s enough basic functions missing that at times I wonder if perhaps I just haven’t discovered what more experienced might already know. Hard to say without a manual.

Which brings us to the end. Or the beginning. I think like a lot of iOS apps, we’re seeing two extremes of how companies approach taking traditional music making activities and apply those to a touch screen device. On one hand we have djay which aims to mimic the old school DJ set up of two decks and a mixer, and on the other we have Meta.dj which looks to incorporate a new interface scheme based on tablet interactions.

I think both apps have enough positive points in their favor that those determined to DJ on the iPad will get good results if they put in the time to learn and prep their material appropriately. However, I still feel we’ve yet to really hit the sweet spot of providing the tools most DJs use, in an app that makes the most of the touch interface.

As I said at the beginning of this review I’m only focusing on two of the more popular apps right now, I know there’s others out there that fill in some gaps in what these can do. But for now I don’t see myself leaving Live or Traktor on the laptop to go with a more simpler approach on the iPad. 

For one thing, having only a single stereo out is the biggest limitation, and I guess on that front were all waiting for Apple to step up and open up this door. But more than that, I think we’re still in the early stages of trying to figure out the best way to access functions that over time have proven to be useful, on an interface no one is used to.

In the meantime, iPad DJing is something I leave to small impromptu gatherings and other informal events. And for those that are curious, djay is the one I use for now.  What about you, anyone out there using an iPad to DJ with?  If so, what apps do you like, and how have you found the experience so far?

Live Set Video, May 2012

As many of you who read the blog no doubt know, I’ve been really busy working on material for my new live sets lately.  Here’s a quick video of some of the latest material from my uptempo set.  The track order has not been sorted yet, so some of the transitions are…. interesting 🙂  But really, that’s what this run through was all about, seeing how these tracks sound when I actually perform them, and not just while writing them.

Anyway, quite a bit of new material in this set, enjoy!

Narrow Your Focus

The longer I work on music, it seems the more ambitious my projects become. These days I’ve found I enjoy the challenge of structuring live sets, or complete albums more than working on solo songs (though I have plenty of those in the works too).

As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of the great advantages of working on larger projects is that it’s very easy to bounce around and always have something new to work on. Of course the flip side of this is that for the majority of the project, be it a live set or complete album, you have a lot of things in progress and unfinished.

Sometimes, even though I should be used to it by now, it all starts to feel a bit overwhelming. Especially if there’s deadlines looming and I know I’m falling behind on getting everything wrapped up. At times like this, you have to start working as efficiently as possible though, and usually the first thing to do is step back and take a look at the big picture.

For instance, the last few months I’ve been working on prepping a new live set for some larger gigs I have lined up this summer. The recent warmer weather though has turned into a stark reminder that summer is almost here, and I’m starting to feel the pressure to get things completed.

For me, the hard part is that I have a lot of big ideas for how I want to have the set laid out, but I know many of these are going to happen over the next year or so and not in the near future. Definitely not in time for my summer shows at least.  So I’ve had to take a pause to re-evaluate exactly what I need to do to get things to the point where the set is playable and I’m happy with it.

 

In this case, it means a few specific things need to be done, and in order of most importance:

– No more new songs added to the set. I have enough for the time slots already booked, plus some in reserve, so that should be good. It’s fun converting all my older studio songs for the live set, but for now I need to focus on finishing the prep work of what I already have.

– It doesn’t make sense to worry about fine-tuning the mixdowns of the songs, when the track order hasn’t even been finalized. And I can’t finalize the track order until I’m done remixing and editing the songs to perform live. Often times they will change drastically in terms of energy level when I do this, which will affect when in the set I want to play them.  First step then is the most important, wrap up the remixing so I know what all the songs will sound like.

– Once the tracks are all ready, it’s time to focus on the next important step to complete, figuring out the track order. To me in many ways this is the most important part, as it helps define the feel of the whole set, and in many ways, my music in general. So I tend to really spend a lot of time here trying to get the song order and my transitions exactly how I want them. If you think structuring a song is hard, multiple that by 10-12.

– Get the “mixdown” of the whole set dialed in. After the track order, this is what I consider the second most important part of my live set. I tend to really focus on trying to build the set sonically as it progresses, so this part can’t be started until the track order has been finalized.

– Take time to focus on the little things.. Finally, once all the important stuff is addressed, I can use any time I have left to go back and really work on the little embellishes I like to add. Fills, more synth modulations, perhaps some interesting movie samples, a cool intro, that sort of thing.  Fun stuff, and easy to get side-tracked on, and that’s why you have step back and look at the big picture for larger projects like this.

 

While I’ve focused on the live set for this example, the same type of thinking holds true for any larger project.  If it’s an album, it might not make sense to spend all day trying out different crash cymbals if the the main melodies for 4 songs aren’t done.  Or perhaps you have a big TV pitch you’re trying to complete on deadline.  Doesn’t make sense to spend your time trying to find the perfect reverb for things, if your main theme isn’t done, and you haven’t lined up all your sounds to the visual cues.

The basic premise remains the same, if you find yourself starting to stress about a project that’s beginning to feel like you took on too much, pause and think about what you can do next that will have the greatest impact on pushing things forward.  Leave the small details for the end if you have time, and instead put all your energy into completing the more important tasks that are what most people will focus on.  Only when you’re done with the important stuff, should you let yourself get side-tracked by the little details.

Whatever you do though, don’t give up, and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of inactivity when things get tough.  One thing I’ve learned over the years is that every great leap in my musical career has involved taking on a project that was just slightly above my comfort level.  Learning to cope with the stress of deadlines effectively and at the same time work efficiently has always been the key to pushing through these challenges.

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On an unrelated note, questions for my Production Q&A series have started to taper off again, so I think for now I’m going to do those a little less frequently.  Certainly continue to send me any questions you have, or any topics you’d maybe like to see discussed in more detail on the blog though.  I’m always looking for new ideas.

Thanks!