Working With Less

WorkWithLess

I like working within limitations when I make music, often creating my own self-imposed restrictions as a means to help spur on creativity. It also has the nice benefit of really forcing you to learn your gear, something I’ve talked about on the blog a lot over the years.

But a lot of people still struggle with finding a workflow they like when working with a limited set of tools, especially if they are coming from a modern DAW with near endless track counts, plug in options, and storage space to work with. Just because you have less to work with, either in terms of quantity or quality of tools, doesn’t mean you still can’t write incredible sounding songs.

As someone who spends a lot of my time writing music on portable devices like tablets and hardware grooveboxes, I’ve had to deal with restrictions a lot over the last few years. Here’s some of the strategies I’ve used to keep the writing process fun, while still getting results I’m happy with at the end of the day:

1. Drums. Most people these days take advantage of endless track counts to have all of their drum sounds on separate tracks, often with busses to process certain groups of drums sounds. Flexible yes, but not always practical if you’re using something like an iPad.

Instead try bouncing down all your drums to a single stereo track, treat them as loops and not individual sounds. It forces you to commit to a drum balance early on, uses a LOT less resources, and will teach you new ways to edit your drums for things like fills and drops.  Or maybe just use simpler drum patterns, make the rhythms less of the focus of the song and concentrate on the other instruments instead.

2. Effects. We all have our favorite effects plug-ins, go to goodies that are unique or just special sounding. But often times CPU usage is a concern, or we just don’t have those tools on the platform we’re using. Instead we have to rely on the plug ins that came with the host, or are built into the hardware to do the same tasks. I’d never try and say that you can get the same results with simpler effects, but with a bit more time and some finessing, you can often get pretty close!

Alternatively, many synths (software, hardware, iOS, etc) have built in effects that we can leverage instead. Often these are extremely CPU light, and if nothing else they offer a different flavor to whatever plugins the host device might have. Try getting as close as you can with the effects built into the synth, and then you can capture those and free up even more CPU when you….

3. Bounce to audio right away. Live synths driven by MIDI tracks are much more CPU intensive than the same result recorded to audio. The sooner you can record the results to audio for arranging and tweaking, the sooner you can use that processing power for the next sound in your composition.

4. Limit tracks. Often we have no choice on this one, the device we’re using will have limited track counts in the first place. But even if you don’t have that in place, try forcing yourself to only work with 8, or even 6 tracks or less when writing your song. It forces you to eliminate all of the normal fill and arrangement techniques you might use, and instead focus on getting your message across as simply as possible. A technique that will come in handy even when you go back to your normal way of composing.

5. Write shorter songs. Often when I’m writing on something other than the studio DAW, I find that I gravitate towards shorter songs. It’s easier on the CPU, minimizes how much storage space you need for your audio and samples, and helps you to focus on finishing the song instead of tweaking it endless.

It’s also a really good way to play with new arrangement ideas, since many of the more common arrangements don’t work as well when you only have 2-3 minutes in the song. kind of hard to find space for multiple breaks downs, or long drawn out intros when working with a shorter song structure!

None of these are particularly earth-shattering tips I know, and most are quite obvious. But if you ever find yourself working on music with limited tools away from the studio, maybe one of these will help you to look past the limitations. Give yourself a chance to work in a new way, and often you’ll find yourself creating music much different than you normally would!

On that note, back to working on my iPad track….

Studio & Stage DIY Ideas

Over the last few years I’ve shared some useful ways to improve your studio, or simplify your stage set up, all for not much money.  I thought I’d compile some of the more popular ideas into one post, along with a couple of new ones too.

Bread Tabs

1. Bread Bag Closures.

This is one of my favorite tips because it’s so simple, and it works equally well on stage or in the studio.  Nice way to keep your cables labeled, and unlike some of the more permanent options like adhesive labels, you never need to worry about removing a sticky residue later on if you need to label something differently.

 

Stand1

2. Build Your Own Speaker Stands.

I’ve been building my own speaker stands for years using this method, because not only is it cheap and easy to do, it’s also allows you to make the stands the perfect height for your particular listening environment.  The basic idea is simple, there’s a flat wood base made out of 3/4″ (or thicker) hardwood.  Local home improvement stores often sell oak pieces made for installing stairs in your home that are not only finished already, but also the perfect width for most small to mid-sized monitors.  One piece is enough for both bases.

The main support is a piece of 4×4″ lumber, I prefer using nicer hardwoods for this (typically Oak as well) as they seem to be not only stronger, but often much straighter than outdoor lumber.  The top of the stand is another piece of 3/4″ thick lumber.  I recommend NOT using plywood for the base or the top piece, it tends to flex more under the weight of heavier monitors, which can lead to all sorts of stability problems. On the very top of the speaker stand, I like to glue one of those super cheap mouse pads upside down.  This puts the rubber side up (fabric side down), which keeps the speakers from sliding on the top of the stands at all.

Stand 2

For the best results, consider using decent speaker spikes to not only decouple the stands from the floor, but also to make placement on carpet or slightly uneven surfaces easier.  I like the ones similar to these:

http://www.dedicatedaudio.com/inc/sdetail/3565

Sometimes you can find them for slightly cheaper on Ebay too.

Ideally you want the tweeter of your monitors to be at ear level, so cut the center 4×4″ piece to the desired height to achieve this.  Don’t forget to factor in the thickness of the base and top pieces, as well as the mousepad and speaker spikes!  If you don’t have woodworking tools or a saw to cut these yourself, most lumber stores like Home Depot or Lowes will cut the wood for you for something like $0.25 a cut.  Easy.

Assembly is simple, 4 long screws can hold the base and the top to the center pole.  Use quality wood screws or lag bolts at least 4 inches long, and pre-drill the holes to prevent splitting the 4×4″ upright support.  Finish them with whatever color spray paint you want (I find flat black looks the best), or if you got nicer woods feel free to stain them instead.  The cost for two stands is about $30-40, maybe a little more if you get more expensive speaker spikes.

3. Artsy Acoustic Treatment.

Typically acoustic treatment for studios has been a rather dull thing to look at, maybe you get a few color choices and that’s it.   While some acoustics treatment companies are now letting you send them artwork to print onto the fabric that they make your panels from, typically it’s very expensive for custom artwork like this.

I found a simpler solution thanks to a company called Spoonflower.com.  They are a craft fabric supplier that lets you upload digital images which they will then print on the fabric of your choice (usually they have 5-6 different choices).  For acoustic reasons, I recommend going with the lightest weight fabric they offer, which is typically almost as thin as a gauze material.

Artsy

The best part is that it’s REALLY cheap!  I had a photo I took on vacation one year printed on a 2 yard piece of fabric for only about $20.  Easy enough to place it over my acoustic panels, and staple it to the back to hold it in place.  Works great for traps you build yourself, or ones you buy pre-made.  Much nicer and less boring to look at too!

4. Painters Tape For Stage Set-Ups.

One last tip for people who play live or set up gear on stages.  Usually gaffers tape is what most people use to tape down cables or secure things on stage.  It works great because it doesn’t leave a residue when you remove it (unlike say Duct Tape), but it’s also really expensive and not something you can easily find at a hardware store.  However painters tape works just as well, and it too doesn’t leave a residue when you remove it.  While it’s still not as cheap as say masking tape, it’s much cheaper than gaffer tape and you can find it at any home improvement store.

Tape

Here you can see it holding the power cords to my Elektrons to the table at a recent gig to keep them from accidentally getting pulled out.  I always tape my cables for my stage gear to one of the legs of any table I’m set up on.  Just adds a nice safety measure to keep people from tripping over cables on stage in the dark and pulling them out of your gear (or worse, pulling your gear off the table!).

Roll With It

RollWithIt

One of the more interesting things I see producers doing these days, is setting out to write a song in a certain style and then getting frustrated when it doesn’t sound the way they intended.  It’s not surprising, we all have a goal we set ourselves when we write music, so of course it can get a little frustrating when it starts to sound totally different from what we wanted.

Sometimes the frustration can be a good thing though, a few people are good at recognizing when it’s happening and can step back and refocus their efforts back onto the right track.  But more often than not it seems to lead to more frustration, to the point where the producer just loses all motivation to continue with that song.  They feel stuck.  They don’t know how to steer things back towards the sound they were going for, and they end up with a half finished song that they aren’t happy with

Here’s the thing though, sometimes you just need to recognize that creativity cannot always be forced in a certain direction.  Often times we go off on tangents while writing because we’re having fun.  Maybe we discovered a new function on our favorite synth, or maybe we just zoned out for a little bit and came up with a new melody we weren’t expecting.

Over the years I’ve found that some of my best songs came about when I ended up writing something completely different to what I was intending to.  I got into a new groove and before I knew it my song was headed in a totally different direction.

Heck, I’m dealing with this right now in fact on a new live set I was prepping.  I was trying to create a really hard techno set, but after most of the parts were recorded I realized it had a much more chill and progressive feel than I wanted. Now, for people who know my usual musical output, this is probably no big surprise, and you’d think I’d be used to it too!  But, like a lot of musicians it started to cause me worry and frustration, to the point where I just had to shelve the project for a few weeks and work on something else.

But the key was realizing a few weeks later when relistening to what I had done so far, that maybe it wasn’t as hard and banging as I wanted it to be, but there were some really good and solid ideas there none the less.  At times like this, you have to let go of your original goal and refocus your efforts on making the most of what you subconsciously wrote.  You have to stop looking at the shift in styles as a bad thing, and instead realize that maybe there’s a reason things turned out in a slightly different vein than you thought.

By realizing that maybe it wasn’t what I intended, but there was still some good music there (IMVHO of course), I went from being upset and feeling like I was at a road block with the project, to suddenly becoming excited about things again.  I had a new goal, a new direction that felt more natural for this project, and I could once again start to shape it without the frustration of feeling like I had let myself down.  Or that I had failed in my goals.

Music and creativity are fickle beasts, and sometimes no amount of skill or intention is going to put them in containers they don’t want to be in.  When you find your musical idea evolving naturally on their own, you don’t always have to fight it.  Roll with it, see where it takes you and keep on having fun during the process of writing.  In my experience, more often than not this leads to far better results in the end, and helps you find your own artistic voice.

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Thanks to everyone that came out to see me DJ last week, if you were there you know how much fun it was.   Now that I have access to a bigger venue, I’m considering starting a regular night there with guest DJs and live performers.  Stayed tuned for more info about Liquid Beats!

Octatrack Slicing Tutorial

A quick tutorial on how to use audio slicing in the Octatrack, and how you can remix your own loops with it.  Plus some other handy shortcuts along the way.  Enjoy the video, and if you find it useful, consider a small donation via the link to the right of the screen.  Thanks!

http://youtu.be/mWGn7RI3vOc

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In other news, been spending a lot of time in the studio mastering EP’s for people.  Must be that time of year for short albums! 🙂

For my own music making, I’ve been exploring an idea I had awhile back to do a techno live set using only the Machinedrum.  Finally decided to give it a go last week, and I’ve already got a ton of material written for the set.   If all goes well, I’m hoping that I’ll have it far enough along to play out in 3-4 weeks.

Changing The Korg EMX-1 Tubes

A couple years back I wanted to change the stock tubes in my Korg EMX-1 to see how more expensive tubes would sound.  I ended up recording and measuring the results for the Electribe forums over at: http://electribe-forum.com.  However, I still get a lot of questions on it, so I wanted to sort of archive it by reposting to my blog.  Here’s the article in it’s entirety:

 

I wanted to create a quick and simple test to see how much of an audible difference replacing the tubes in my new Korg EMX-1 would make. After looking into what tubes to replace the stock 12AX7 tubes with, I decided on a pair of matched triode JJ ECC83S which I bought from Eurotubes.com:

https://ssl.eurotubes.com/cart/index.ph … gory_id=12

I wanted to see how much difference there would be in level (volume) between the tube types, as well how much the distortion varied as well. The first thing I did was create a simple 1 bar pattern with a held sine wav to measure the output of the EMX using the stock tubes. The EMX-1 main outs were then routed to the inputs of my MOTU Ultralite soundcard, and I used Ableton Live 7.07 and the plug in Inspector XL from EAS to measure the levels. Inspector XL was set to use the K-14 meter scale, which is my preferred metering scale. I recorded the RMS meter readings at 5 difference positions of the Tube Gain knob on the EMX-1.

Here are the readings I obtained with the stock Korg tubes:

Knob Position 0 = -11.30dB
Knob Position 2 = -9.50dB
Knob Position Half = -0.55dB
Knob Position 8 = 3.67dB
Knob Position Full = 3.93dB

Here are the readings I obtained with the JJ ECC83S tubes after the swap:

Knob Position 0 = -17.20dB
Knob Position 2 = -15.80dB
Knob Position Half = -6.49dB
Knob Position 8 = -2.22dB
Knob Position Full = -2.00dB

As you can see, the JJ tubes are quieter by roughly 5-6dB at all knob positions. Next to the tubes in the EMX-1 are pots to adjust the output levels of each tube, but there was not enough range to successfully match the levels of the two tube types, so be aware that swapping your tubes will potentially lower the output level of your EMX-1.

My next step was to record audio examples of the two tubes in action so people could hear the differences with a more real-world example. For this test, I used an 8 bar EMX-1 pattern from my last song, “Puled” which you can read about here:

http://www.korgforums.com/forum/phpBB2/ … b9714a869b

I recorded 8 bars of audio from the EMX-1 into Ableton Live 7.07 using the same Tube Gain settings listed above. Live was set to record 24bit/44.1kHz wav files, and these were then converted to 320kbps MP3’s once I was done to save on traffic on my site. I think even the MP3’s make the differences plain to hear, so likely nothing would have been gained anyway by posting wav file formats. Here’s the audio examples:

Knob Position 0:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/01_Stock_Tubes_0.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/02_ECC83S_Tubes_0.mp3

Knob Position 2:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/03_Stock_Tubes_2.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/04_ECC83S_Tubes_2.mp3

Knob Position Half:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/05_Stock_Tubes_Half.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/06_ECC83S_Tubes_Half.mp3

Knob Position 8:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/07_Stock_Tubes_8.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/08_ECC83S_Tubes_8.mp3

Knob Position Full:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/09_Stock_Tubes_Full.mp3

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/10_ECC83S_Tubes_Full.mp3

As you can hear, not only are the stock tubes louder, but they also distort much more at higher Tube Gain settings on the EMX-1. As to which tube type is better, I’ll leave that for you to decide, as it really depends on how you use the tubes and the sound you personally prefer.

Hope this was helpful to people. Thanks for taking the time to listen, and feel free to let me know if you have any questions on the testing I did.

Recording Audio from iKaossilator to the Octatrack

A couple weeks back I talked about how I’ve been using iOS groovebox-style apps to come up with new song ideas while out and about, and then transfer those to the Elektron Octatrack once I’m back in the studio.  Had a few people ask me how I go about doing this, so I created a quick overview showing how I record and edit audio from the iKaossilator iOS app into the Octatrack.

http://youtu.be/QJ1kMQKt_rY

(Sorry, I had to remove the embedded player as it was killing my site bandwidth)

Hope people find this useful, and as always if you have any questions or comments, post them in the comments section below.  Thanks!

Your Best Production Advice?

 

As regular readers of my blog know, every once in awhile I turn things around and ask for YOUR advice.  This time, I want to know what’s the ONE piece of knowledge you would share with someone just getting into music production?

It can be something someone else passed on to you, something you learned through trial and error, or even something you read in a book or magazine.

Thanks for sharing!

Preparing For Gigs

Since my last post about nerves before a gig, I’ve had a lot of people asking what I do to prepare for my live shows.  I’ve covered some of this in the past in my Playing Live Guide, but it’s worth covering the basics again.

The first thing, obviously, is having a live set ready to perform in the first place.  I normally try and have at least an hour of music I play before I start looking into getting booked gigs, or agreeing to take any.  Sometimes if I’m close to having enough material ready I’ll accept and use that to motivate me to finish, but normally I try and have the basics down first.

Once I get booked for a show, I want to know the details.  Where is it, what kind of crowd, when am I playing, how long am I playing, etc.  Normally the promoter will give you all this information when they contact you with the booking in the first place, but if not it’s worth getting ahold of them asap so you know exactly what to expect and what to plan for.

Think about other, less obvious things too though.  Is there a hotel nearby, and how are you getting there?  Will there be some place secure for you to stash your gear before and after the gig, or are you responsible for it?  What kind of connections will you be plugging into, DI’s or a FOH (or even DJ) mixer? Who has the drink tickets?

 

Usually by this point I’m a couple weeks out from the show, and I’m putting the finishing touches on the set based on what the promoter told me.  Tailoring it for the crowd, are they looking to dance or chill out, fine tune the track order, etc.  I then make back ups of all my data to DVDr to bring with me.  You can’t count on it, but it seems more often than not someone has a laptop available if you need it these days.  I don’t just back up the data for my sets, but also the apps needed to use/send it to my gear too.  It helps to have these installers for both OSX and Windows.

The next phase for me is the trial run of the set.  I force myself to pretend I’m doing it for real, and do it front to back to make sure there’s no issues (at least on that day).  Ideally I’m doing the set someplace else, a local small bar or a friends house, you name it.  Some place I have to physically leave my studio and pack like I was going to a gig.  I look at all the cables and connections I need, and then I bring twice as many of the same types.

Cables always fail at your first big show.  I swear gnomes exist that do nothing but trash your most important cables minutes before you’re supposed to start playing.

Not only do I pretend that I’m performing in front of people. but also setting up and tearing down my gear.  Will I be able to hook everything up in advance with a soundcheck, and just leave it in place until I play?  Or will I have to set up while someone else is finishing their set before me?  Plan for both, and know what to do so you can do it quickly and correctly.

 

Speaking of sound checks, when possible, insist on them!  This is your last trial run before the show, and it also lets you see if your set is sounding the way you want on the sound system you’ll actually be using.  Hopefully there’s a sound guy there to help you sort any issue (too bright, too bassy, etc), but if not, play some of your live songs and walk around where the audience will be.  If there’s a mixer you’ll be plugged into, use it’s EQ to get things sounding the way you want later on. Keep in mind an empty space will sound much brighter than one full of people too.

When you’re done practicing the set, pack your stuff up like you were leaving for the night.  Imagine someone else is trying to get their gear set up too, and plan to keep things as simple as possible.  Flag or tape your own cables so there’s no confusion, make them unique.

I’m a big believer in packing everything up neat so the next show I could just unpack and set up as if I just left the studio.  Coil cables carefully and use velcro wire wraps to keep everything separated.  Don’t just toss it all in your bag in a big heap, that’s how you break cables and forget things at the venue.   Do it right, but be efficient and considerate of those playing after you. Double-check that you actually grabbed everything you brought with you.

For the most part, this is pretty much all I do when prepping for shows.  Sometimes during the trial run I’ll hear some things I need to go back and tweak, but I try and not obsess over this too much beforehand.  It’s always a fine line between practicing enough to be prepared, versus hearing the same music so many times you get sick of it.  Plus, each time you change something, you need to create new back ups and burn new DVDr’s, so that’s a consideration too.

I generally try and get all the prep work finished 3-4 days in advance of a show.  Gives me enough time to rush order anything that breaks or needs replacing, and it also gives me a few days away from the set before I actually do it for real.  Like I said, no need to get burned out on the set before you even get in front of people.  🙂