The other day, I sat down with the homie James Taylor to talk about my second favorite subject: Cash Money. James is what we in the biz call “a baws” (like Rick Ross): he’s the General Manager at the Beauty Bar here in Austin and is the don of his own company, Giant Steps Productions, which is a one-stop shop for management, booking and publicity for a grip of local acts.
We sat down to have a beer(s) and debrief about a presentation that he gave recently about novel ways to make some money in this business that we call: Music. I’m going to put up a few of his insights over the next week or so, but let’s begin with James’ ideas regarding getting sponsored as a musician.
I read a lot of forums. I see a lot of people talking about how, to make a great mix, they need this or that set of monitors or they need to treat their room in this or that way. And I agree wholeheartedly! It will make your life so much better to have a great room, treated correctly and to have sweet monitors that have a great frequency response.
But I also think that you should do what you can with what you’ve got.
That is why I think that you should always check your mix (several times in fact) on a wide variety of speakers. This way, you can cross reference how the mix sounds in a variety of environments and make sure that you tailor your mix accordingly. Here’s where I check my mixes:
On my good headphones (Grados)
On my monitors
On my crappy iPhone headphones
In my car (great system)
In my roommate’s car (crap system)
On a boombox
On a club PA (I usually do this when a project is close to done)
For every one of these, I take notes. I write down which instruments are too prominent and instruments are getting “swallowed.” Then, I compare these notes with one another. If I see the same problems arising on multiple systems, then I assume that it is a problem with the mix and I correct accordingly.
While this may seem janky, I have it on good authority that even the best sound engineers will eventually listen to a mix on a crappy boombox. The reason behind this is simple: only .05% of the population will ever listen to your track on anything resembling a hi-fi system. Most of us mere mortals will listen to it on a laptop at best and, at worst, on iPhone speakers. Even the most clubby of music now has to be able to be listened to in these different environments. So, take heart! You are just doing some field testing.
You scientist, you.
Leave a comment and tell me where your going to check your mixes! Extra points for bizarro answers.
When discussing how best to FDT, I get a lot of emails about how one should master a track in Ableton. I think that a lot of this comes from the belief that mastering will make a bad track good, a quiet track loud, a moped a Maserati.
It can and it can’t.
Unfortunately, what mastering can also do is make a shitty track a loud shitty track. And who needs that?
So, today, I’d like to deliver some bad news: You shouldn’t try to master your tracks yourself, at least not for commercial release.
It’s like taking your sister to prom. Which is sad.
Besides the mindblowingly amazing hi-fi equipment that the Mastering Engineer has (whose amazingness no one can actually explain to me in English), what you are actually paying him (or her [herm?]) for is the fact that they don’t know you and, frankly, don’t care if your track took 9 years to produce. If it’s crappy, they’ll do whatever it takes to make it better. Even if that means tamping down on those background vocals that you worked so hard on. Or telling you that a 6 minute timbale solo is just too much.
You are paying a mastering engineer to be objective and to be ruthless. Because often, our passion for our work actually blinds to its shortcomings.
If you can’t afford a mastering engineer, I would suggest the following: Find the harshest friend you have. The harshest. Someone who, really, it would be a stretch to call “a friend.” Then, play them your tunes. Record all of their criticism. Not just what you want to hear. All of it.
Now go home and have a good cry.
Get back in the studio. Go through their comments and make them into a checklist whose first term is always a verb. Example: “Make chorus bigger,” “Make pads less piercing,” “Make intro longer,” “Put more suspense in breakdown.” Try your damnedest to be objective. I often find that putting these comments into a checklist helps me be more pragmatic and not get my feelings hurt (yes, I too have feelings).
Now, attack each checklist item one by one. Before moving on, ask yourself, Have I truly addressed this problem.
It’s hard, but think about it this way: It’s better than taking your sister to the prom.
Do you have experience getting a track professionally mastered? Would you agree with my comments?
Anticipation of a drum fill, anticipation of a chord change, anticipation of a breakdown. And half the fun of making music is playing with people’s anticipation; making them expect one thing only to give them another. The other half is giving them exactly what they want.
But, what is one thing that RUINS anticipation? Knowing what is going to happen next. And you, as the producer of a piecer of music, know very well what is going to happen next. This is bad enough. But looking at your sequencer, which has all of the upcoming events laid out in glaring colors? My god, that’s like someone telling you what happens in the last episode of Lost before you watch it (hint: they were all zombies).
When listening to your tracks, you must be able to switch seamlessly between hearing the track as a producer and hearing the track as just another listener. This is extremely hard! Do not underestimate how difficult this is.
And one of the most important differences between a producer and a listener is that a listener doesn’t know how a track or a part of a track is “supposed” to sound. While you, the producer are constantly comparing the actual track to the track of your dreams, the listener is (to a certain extent) taking it as it comes.
Trying to rid yourself of your preconceptions is key. But it’s very difficult to do that while staring at a blinking screen with huge purple boxes representing what is about to happen.
So, for the love of all that is holy, turn off your screen every once in a while and listen to the mix blind. It will help you get out of “producer mode” and into, “Hey, I’m just another bro at the club mode” (if that is your target audience).
We’re all familiar with the feeling of frenzied creativity; spending all night consumed by an idea, insensitive to all else in the world.
We’re also familiar with what comes after: Burnout. Suddenly the idea which seemed so all-consuming the night before seems tired and unexciting. I usually just think, I guess I’ll just watch some old Futurama episodes on Netflix.
Well maybe your idea truly sucked.
Probably not. As harsh as this sounds, I actually think that we sometimes denigrate our own ideas in order to avoid finishing them. Weird, right?
Or maybe you just didn’t know what to do after the romance of the new idea was gone. This, to me, seems to be a lot more probable.
I have an answer for you: Make a Plan.
Planning things in the creative process seems to be sacrilege. Why would we want a GANTT chart to guide production of our album about our deep feelings about the universe?
The good news is that creative planning is not the same thing as regular planning. It’s looser and, most importantly, its only criteria is your satisfaction. Yippee!
In my experience, there are really only two important pieces of an effective creative plan.
1) An appropriate level of granularity.
While this sounds complicated, it really just means that you should have small tasks that are meaningful. Try to make sure that all tasks begin with a verb. “Finish Track” is not a useful level of granularity. “Adjust Bit Depth to 4%” might be a little too extreme. I like to have tasks like “Finish pads for breakdown.” A good resource for this is David Allen’s GTD.
2) An appropriate time scale.
Self-imposed deadlines are weird things. On the one hand, they can be counterproductive, causing you to “ship” things that aren’t ready for the world yet. On the other hand, they can be really useful for nudging yourself into action.
The two most important elements of a good (personal) creative deadline are: the right attitude towards the deadline (remember that it should be a nudge and not a “do-or-die” deadline) and always giving yourself 1.5x as much time as you think that you reasonably need. I actually hew very close to the 1.5x rule since I think that it ends up being beneficial for, at least, my sanity.
Making a Plan, while it might seem foreign to the creative process, will be really useful for your FDT (Finish the Damn Track) method. If you do this correctly, you may find yourself getting back into your frenzied creative process as you get closer to your deadlines.
How do yall organize your time when you’re trying getting your creative process done?
I was talking with a friend the other day whose first show had been attended by me. And just me. He was bummed and I was trying to give him some advice based on an essay that I had read by noted nutburger Ernst Jünger called On Pain.
Jünger says that there are two kinds of people in the modern age: Those whose whole existence is based on avoiding pain and those who realize that pain is unavoidable and must be dealt with. “Pain” for Jünger is a broad term: It can be physical pain, or it can mean embarassment, failure or disappointment. And, by perpetuating the idea that it is desirable or even possible to totally avoid pain, we consign ourselves to a life of fear and mediocrity. Only the second group is capable of doing truly epic shit (my term).
In my experience, this is true. Because there is only one skill that I am absolutely convinced will yield more success. And that one skill is being able to deal with failure.
Losing. Blowing it. Embarrassing yourself. Not meeting deadlines. Humiliation. Regret.
And the amazing thing is that our contemporary culture and educational systems seem to be designed to shield people from experiencing failure. The only people who actually experience failure are those, like us, who take on projects of their own, independent of any institution.
The good news is that being an artist (ie. being you or me) means understanding failure. If you’ve never failed, then you’ve never tried. So, take heart and know that the lumps that you take when you drop your EP and no one downloads it, or when no one comes to your show, will serve you well when you attempt anything else. And this ability to deal with your failures and bounce back from them will surely be useful in other, probably most aspects of your life.
So, if you haven’t failed yet, you haven’t hung it out there far enough. And if you have failed, realize that you’re stronger and better prepared for life that many who surround you who haven’t dared as much as you have.
Just my two cents.
Let me know in the comments what your biggest (artistic) failure has been and what you’ve learned from it!
The third principle of music arrangement, variety, is directly at odds with the first, unity. And the question of how to make a piece of music unified while simultaneously making it varied is at the heart of all arrangement and composition. Luckily for us, there are well-documented ways to do it and the fact that we are often composing and arranging things “in the box” (in a computer) means that these techniques are even easier! Huzzah.
The best way to make sure that you are fulfilling both the criteria of unity and the criteria of variety is to start with a central melodic line and try to make as many variations as you can, without changing the central premise of the melodic line. And there are two basic ways to do this.
Let’s say you have a great central melody. Or hey, let’s say that you have a mediocre central melody. Don’t feel bad. The first way to add some variation to this lil guy is to use the exact same notes, but change the rhythm. Don’t change the order, since that’s how people know that it’s the same melody, just change the rhythm. What’s that? You need an example?
First of all, get your mind correct. Tropicalia, Brazilian music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, has some of the most amazing arrangement you’ll ever hear. I mean Rogerio Duprat, the guy who arranged this track by Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa, is on some Beach Boys level of genius. Really and truly.
But back to the matter at hand. The melody to this song is as simple as it gets: just 4 notes and 2 chords. But notice how the string arrangement foreshadows elements of the verse melody. The strings play the verse in slightly different rhythms and has the different string parts overlap. Bonus points here because the strings don’t play the whole phrase, just a piece of it.
Same Melody in the Verse
This is a great example of using your resources to the maximum. Instead of going back to the drawing board, Duprat just cut out a piece of the verse and repeated it with slightly different rhythms. The good news is that doing this in Ableton is as easy as copying a clip and dragging a few MIDI boxes around! So, there’s no reason not to experiment with this method.
Another great way to add variation, and one that Duprat already uses here, is to have a very similar melody shared by two instruments. In the case of “Baby,” the strings and the vocals kind of echo one another. Just having the same melody played by two different instruments will already provide a lot of variation for your track. But let’s look at an example from Flying Lotus’ Do the Astral Plane.
Flying Lotus-Do the Astral Plane
Once again: Get educated on your arrangers. The man behind the strings on FlyLo’s album is named Miguel Atwood Ferguson and I think that he’s the heir to a lot of the Brazilian stuff that I mentioned above.
But I digress.
Do the Astral Plane is a great example of sharing one basic melody between instruments. The melodic bulk of the track doesn’t really start until the strings come in at 1:55, but you can hear how they are continuing the little bits of melody begun at 1:38.
Beginning of Melody
And then the melody dies back down and just a few notes of it are being carried by what appears to be a synth (mellowed by an LP filter?) at 2:44.
This is held for a while until the melody crescendos back and is then echoed by what sounds like a trumpet. But you can hear that the trumpet plays the same notes, but not in unison. The trumpet plays a more ornamented version of the main melody. Allowing the melody to be shared in this way fulfills our requirement for unity and variety.
Do any other great arrangers come to mind? Let me know in the comments!
Most music has a whole bunch of crap going on simultaneously.
Think about it. Even the most mickey-mouse, basic music has at least two melodies going at the same time, a drum beat, a bassline and some chords. It’s a mess.
And the human ear, as we’ve discussed in the past, is an idiot. It is difficult for us to hear all of these elements simultaneously, so we find it more enjoyable if one element is foregrounded in some way. Thus, we have to find ways to emphasize the most important element of an arrangement at any given time.
Haven’t thought about what part of the track is the most important yet? Haven’t figured out if that lead is supposed to be on top of the arp, or vice versa? Now would be the time to think about that.
Confession time. I love The-Dream. I really do. I love him because he is a master arranger.
Think about it, do his songs ever have “cool sounds”? No. “Interesting effects”? No. He basically uses what appear to be the presets on a Triton and still makes great jams that transcend pop&B gym-music (I call that stuff “gym-music” because that’s the only place that I hear it).
One of my favorites is his song Rockin That Thang, where he uses emphasis to guide your ear towards the most important part of the song at different points.
Rockin That Thang – The-Dream
The first, and probably most obvious way to add emphasis to a song is with volume. Since, like I said, our ears lack subtlety, we’ll gravitate towards the loudest element of a song. This means that, if you’d like a song element to have some presence and to figure into the listener’s profile of the track, you have to allow it some time when it is the most prominent sound. You can hear this at the beginning of Rock That Thang
The-Dream has an accompanying melodic element that he introduces during this intro. Coincidentally, it is basically the same notes as the chorus, something that we will discuss next post. Since he starts this element before the melody comes in, it is foregrounded and can play, quietly, through the rest of the song and mirror the melody. You can see here that the emphasized element doesn’t have to be loud, it just has to be “the loudest.”
The-Dream also emphasizes certain portions of the melody using two different techniques: volume and harmony.
In this little portion, The-Dream cuts out the other elements (accompanying melody, bass, drums) in order to let the vocals stand alone. This makes it the loudest, giving it the emphasis. He also doubles this melody with other, simultaneous vocals which sing different notes but in the same rhythm. This method of sudden harmonic doubling calls attention to the melody and makes it stick out from the rest of the track, which in turn highlights the drop back into the pre-chorus. Pretty awesome, huh!
I hope that this post has made you like The-Dream a little more. Let me know if it worked in the comments!
The second most common question that I get about the Ableton Cookbook Live Course is: What is arrangement?
The first most common is: Does this cover Dubstep?
Well, I thought that it might be a good idea for me to shed a little light on the second question, on the subject of arrangement, since it seems to befuddle almost everyone. Here it goes:
Arrangement is the process by which a musical sketch becomes an entire piece of music.
To whit: A quote from an old dead guy.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once claimed (in his boring and almost unreadable Lectures on Aesthetics) that, just as the material of painting is paint and the material of sculpture is stone, the material of music is time. What makes music music is the way that it unfolds and changes over time. Break even the greatest track into millisecond snippets and it sounds like garbaggio or an Alva Noto track.
And so, how we divide up the 3-7 minutes of our track (12 if you’re making a Larry Levan disco edit) is extremely important and merits real thought. This, opposed to the increasingly prevalent practice of making a 16 bar section and copying it and pasting it to fill 4 minutes. Of course, making every bar entirely different would also be totally unlistenable.
As you can see, the question becomes complicated very quickly. Luckily, there are a few guidelines that we can look to before we dive into how to actually lay out a track in Ableton. If you have ever studied graphic design, you might recognize these principles of composition or arrangement. I’ll be laying out one principle of arrangement (with examples) per day over the next week.
We have all heard a breakcore song that really appears (or maybe is) not really one song, but 17 bits pasted together. This violates the principle of unity, in that the pieces do not cohere into one unified whole. The last 20 seconds of a Shitmat song could be the first 20 seconds of another Shitmat song, it doesn’t seem to matter (disclaimer: I love Shitmat). So, we need to make sure that the different elements of a track are unified in some way. The different ways of doing this are what distinguishes a great composer from someone who is good at generating new sounds, but doesn’t flesh them out. One very common unifying element is to have a melodic fragment that recurs.
Amen Babylon – Shitmat
The most popular (and best) Aphex Twin and Squarepusher tracks are extremely varied and bizarro, but there is always a little melodic element or rhythmic figure that ties them together and provides unity. Listen to the way that, through the rhythmic minefield that is Windowlicker, the recurring, sampled melody keeps coming back. Even on the outro (about 4:30 forward), the same melody is retained, but dropped a few octaves, modified a bit and given to a different instrument. Kind of sounds like a disorted guitar, but that seems too normal for Aphex.
Window Licker – Aphex Twin
Finding new ways to add variation while preserving the unity is a difficult job and requires some creativity. Check out this James Blake song. While most people use a unifying background element (like a break, chord changes) while varying the melody or at least the lyrics, James decided to flip it. The melody of this track is repeated like 9000 times. But the instrumentation behind his voice keeps changing. I think that this song is boring, but I like his fresh approach to the problem.
Wilhelm Scream – James Blake
Do yall have any other examples of good unifying principles in electronic music?
Phil Collins and I have more than a haircut in common: We both LOVE gated reverb. And hopefully, after this post, you’ll love it, too! Here’s an example
Gated reverb is actually the combination of two effects: Reverb and Gate. Shocking, I know. Since the goals of these two effects are basically polar opposites-Reverb extends the decay of a sound and Gate cuts it off artificially–the resulting effect is a pleasingly artificial addition to any sound, but especially Snare drums.
So, here is a step by step method for making a gated reverb effect in Ableton Live worthy of the king of 80′s soft rock.
First of all, drag a drum rack with your desired samples loaded up.
Double click on the Cell with your snare drum in it. The device chain should pop up to the right of the drum rack.
Drag a Reverb effect into the device chain, followed by a Gate effect. Your optimum Reverb settings are going to be ones that optimize the length of the reverb. So, I picked the preset called “Long Tail.” Seemed like a gimme.
Turn the Wet/Dry knob of the reverb to 100%.
Turn the Gate off and listen to the effect. The original hit should be almost inaudible and the sound should take a while to decay.
Now, turn the Gate back on. Mess with the Threshold value until it begins to interfere with the decay of the Reverb. So, you should hear a of wooshing sound that is cut off kind of suddenly.
Now comes the tricky part: Select both the Reverb and Gate and press Cmd+G to make them into an Effects Rack. Open the chain view and Right Click the chain area. Select “Create New Chain.” Name the Chain with the Reverb and Gate, “Wet” and the other, “Dry.”
Play the sample again. The attack of the snare has returned (hopefully)!
I find this way of doing it, balancing the affected and unaffected signals with the chain volumes, to be better than trying to mess with the Wet/Dry of Reverb.
BONUS: Try to add different effects before the Gate. I’ve tried this with the Frequency Shifter and the Phaser to great effect. I’d like to hear what you come up with.
What kind of effects do yall use on your drums? Leave me a comment and let me know!
P.S. A big thank you to everyone who got the Clip Module the other day! I’ve already gotten some great feedback, as well as ideas about how to make the next round even better.