Posts Tagged 'production'

Ableton Live 9: additions and wishlists…

A few weeks ago, Ableton announced the latest update to their Live studio and performance DAW, Live 9. Having  been a Live user since version 1.5, I am always interested in the latest update to the DAW I find most inspiring; although, after all the bugs and issues I had with Live 8, I might wait for a dot update before upgrading. Anyway, I’m sure you’ve all seen the new features, but I thought I might list a few of the things I’d like to see in the next update…

I’m aware that I do not know Live as deeply as I possibly should, once I find a way to do what I need -no matter how convoluted- I tend just to use that rather than look for alternatives. So, if there are things in my wishlist that I Live can do already, please comment and let me know!

The wishlist:

While all these updates are nice, there are a few things that I’d like to see in forthcoming releases:

Mono tracks. I don’t need all my tracks to be stereo. I’d like to select whether a particular channel is mono or stereo so that I’m not using twice as much processing power when I’m running effects on that channel.

Groups within groups. Yes, there are ways to route things, but I’d like to be able to nest a few things. For example, I often use two or three different tracks for the bassline. I’d like to be able to group those, then have that group in another group with the kick drum so I can compress the low end together.

An easier way to turn clips into songs. I always start out in session view, separate channels for different sounds and instruments, then a few variations within each channel. Once I’m there, I’d love to have an easier way of getting those variations into the arrangement view would be nice. A ‘paintbrush’-style tool in the arrangement view that allows me ‘paint’ sounds down on the timeline from the ‘palette’ of sounds that are available in the session view of that channel would be absolutely fantastic.

‘Pinging’ an external effect to set up device latency. How fantastic would it be if the external effect device just had a button that said ‘ping’ or similar, which would then send a test tone to the external effect and learn how long it takes for the audio to make the round trip, ideally to within a tenth of a millisecond or better. Perfect.

There are a few more little niggles, but that should cover it for now. As for what is in Live 9, I bought the full version of Cytomic’s The Glue quite a while ago (excellent plugin, can’t recommend it highly enough!), so the new Glue compressor is just typical of my musical investments, but reassuring that I backed a winning horse I suppose! The audio to MIDI feature is what I think will make the biggest difference to my workflow though: looking forward to recording those solos and ear candy ornamentations with the guitar, changing them to MIDI and playing about with synths, electric pianos and anything else I’m not very good at playing! Bring on the release of Live 9!

Oh, and Push as well, that looks handy…

Bring The People To Your Music

Fynn Callum & Carolyn Bowick

The online music revolution has, undoubtedly, been a revelation for today’s producers wanting to be heard. Gone are the days of optimistically sending demo tapes, or spending a small fortune on getting a first run of vinyl pressed to try to build a following. Now, sites like Soundcloud make it easy to make your music available, and aggregators such as Tunecore and Rebeat allow you to go down the do it yourself route and get your music into digital stores.

Unfortunately, opening the industry up in this way has in some ways just moved the goalposts. Now, instead of the bottleneck for new entrants being recording and production, it’s the marketing; it’s far easier to get your music to the people, but with millions of others doing the same, it’s quite another to get them to listen.

It seems we’ve gone full circle: far from being liberated from the label system, artists now need to get signed, not only to benefit from the label’s promotional budget, but, as anyone can get a track on iTunes these days, to use the brand to add an air of ‘legitimacy’ to their product. Fortunately, hand in hand with the revolution of digital music distribution has come the age of social media, which offers the chance to pull your audience to your creations, rather than simply relying on pushing content out into the world and hoping for the best.

So, how can you use social media to build a following and start to get word of mouth working for you so that, when your release drops, there are people waiting to hear it?

1. Use SoundCloud and get a pro account. Soundcloud is perhaps the most popular forum for producers, djs and labels, combining cloud storage, streaming and download services, as well as the chance to interact and comment with other users. A pro account costs from 29 Euros a year and shows that you take what you do seriously, as well as giving you more music time and better analytics on your listeners and downloaders.

2. Use social media as a home for your news, and keep your name visible, but don’t sign up for every social media outlet that’s out there; keep it manageable so that you can keep each one regularly updated with good content. The big three are Twitter, Facebook and a blog: Twitter for regular ‘drip feed’ exposure, and Facebook or a blog for more developed, less transient, content. Also think about linking accounts where possible so that new Soundcloud uploads and favouritings and blog posts etc are announced through Twitter and updated on your other profiles. Just be careful that you don’t end up either spamming by accident, and don’t use this as an excuse to be lazy – it’s not enough to use links to save you putting the work into each one separately.

3. Keep it relevant. Don’t start following 5000 people who aren’t likely to be interested in you just to try and get a crowd of followers; keep things related to what you do, even if it’s just tangential, such as people in the same city etc. Investigate using Twitter lists to manage those you’re following, and check out the lists of people you follow to find new contacts.

4. Support your fellow emerging artists. Don’t ignore your peers and only follow big name artists: they represent a large demographic and if you respect them, they’ll respect you. Plus, rising stars who like what you do are more likely to share it. But do look for people with lots of relevant connections, what network analysis would call ‘hubs’ – if they share something you’ve done, it reaches a much larger group of people. But social media etiquette suggests that genuine relationship building and reciprocal sharing is better than begging for retweets.

5. Soundcloud groups provide a good way of identifying people with similar tastes and are often visited by major signed artists and labels. Join groups, follow people whose work you like, and contribute.

6. Be visible on Soundcloud, release free-to-download tracks occasionally (and not just the stuff you don’t think is good enough to send to labels) and add them to the relevant groups. Make sure and comment regularly on other tracks, and try to avoid asking people to listen to your latest in the comment!

7. Run some remix contests. Upload the stems or some sample packs of one of your tracks and give people the chance to remix them. Joining and posting on some of the music production forums can help here. You never know, you might get some submissions that allow you to get a good release together, and all the contributors will also be promoting it themselves…

8. Interaction is the key to social media. In order to be successful you have to give as well as take. Look for any opportunity to get your name seen, but without crossing the line into spamming or trolling. Join forums, post, comment, follow music blogs, post reviews of products on music store sites, enter remix competitions and generally keep your eye out for opportunities to increase your visibility. Investing the time in interacting with people also positions you as someone with a genuine interest and certain level of knowledge/expertise, and that’s important if you want to be taken seriously.

It seems as though, after spending hours playing with arrangements, and adjusting level, eq and compression settings, when you finally have that final render down and master, that the hard work should be done. These days though, it might only be just beginning; but, if you put the time in early, it might pay off in the long run. Just remember that you can only harvest what you sow.

Carolyn Bowick has applied her marketing experience in a number of fields from academia to industry, specialising in digital marketing and social media; you can follow her marketing blog at: carolynbowick.com

Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro Headphones Review

DT-880 Pros are pretty well reviewed already –they’ve been around for a while, after all- so why should you read this one? Well, first of all it’s another opinion and, secondly, as far as I can find, no-one has talked about their suitability for house music production on the road using an Apogee One as an interface. I’ll assume that you’ve read some other reviews and product descriptions, so I’ll not repeat all of the basics and just concentrate on my experience with these headphones.

DT 880 Pro: Build Quality, Comfort and Appearance

Let’s start with comfort. Despite being a bit heavier than its main competitors, the Sennheiser HD650s and the AKG K701s, these are comfortable ‘phones. There isn’t too much downward pressure on the top of your head; the inward pressure feels reassuring, with a feeling of closeness without causing any discomfort, even after long listening sessions. The material used for the padding is smooth and soft, and doesn’t make your head too sweaty, which is always a bonus.

Appearance is pretty good too. The ‘phones come in a nice foam-lined zip up case and look the part. If I have any complaints, it’s that the cradles that support the cups look like a bit of a design afterthought, and the exposed cabling looks thin and fragile, but then, these headphones are cheaper than both the AKGs and the Sennheisers.

Build quality and potential long-term functionality is where I start to have issues. First off, the cable is non-detachable, being moulded into the bottom of one of the cups, so any wiring issues are going to be complicated to resolve, with higher repair bills, as described in this review. If I’m being honest, I don’t think any phones at this price point should have moulded cables, particularly those with ‘Pro’ in the name.

I’m also not sure about running that thin little cable from one cup to the other by tucking it under the detachable headband. Those cables seem very delicate, and I’m genuinely quite concerned about them snagging on something at somepoint, having them pulling out of the cups, and expensive repair bills resulting. Not sure that this feeling of breakability inspires confidence in a pair of working headphones. Compared with my Sennheiser HD555s, which were a third of the price, this cup to cup cabling arrangement seems poor.

The size adjustment is also a bit clunky, with the cup, brackets sliding back and forth in not a particularly smooth way. This is something I expect to be doing a lot of, as, with the ‘phones fitted to my head, putting them back in the case means that the moulded cable is at quite an extreme angle, and under a lot of stress, due to the snug fit in the case, so, to minimise that, I have to push the brackets back in again. Then, every time I resize, I’m concerned I’m going to catch the cables with my fingers.

DT 880 Pro: Sound

The sound performance is where the DT 880 Pros redeem themselves. These are the best ‘phones, from an accuracy perspective, that I’ve heard. The HD650s are perhaps more exciting to listen to, with the more ‘hyped’ bass response, but for critical mix decisions, I’d feel more comfortable trusting these; everything just seems more flat, and ‘egalitarian’ in the mix. Bass is low and extended, but feels well controlled. These are exceptionally good sounding headphones for the money.

Listening through an Apogee One after allowing a good length of burn in time, playing a variety of tracks showed this to be a good, reliable performer, from Alison Krauss to Maya Jane Coles, via KT Tunstall, Teenage Fanclub, Jacqueline du Pre and The Pretenders. I enjoyed the level of detail, accurate soundstage and the depth of the mix that was presented. Great performers.

DT 880 Pro: Deep House Production

So, the real reason for using these ‘phones, those late night deep house production sessions when using monitors is out of the question. After firing up Ableton Live 8, plugin 112 dB’s excellent Redline Monitor plugin into the master effects, I got to work. I can’t remember the last time I found it this easy to dial in a good kick sound. I usually layer two or three, and filter and eq to get them working together, then compress. I had a sound I was happy with in next to no time. Balancing and eqing my layered clap and snare hits was a breeze, and before I knew where I was, I had the bass sitting comfortably in a hole and, to me at least, a reasonably complete groove going on.

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, I would rather mix on good headphones than cheap monitors in an untreated room; these ‘phones have raised the bar as to what good monitors in a good room are. I can see myself spending a lot more time mixing on these, the level of detail available to make those critical decisions and hear those little distortions is fantastic. Combined with the Redline plugin, I really do have the confidence to make mix decisions on these.

DT 880 Pro: Summary

Well, the sound is spectacular, I feel happy mixing on these, and would much rather mix on these than speakers that are getting to a less than modest price point. The issue for me really is that feeling of delicacy, and, if there is a problem, a large repair bill. Despite the protective case, I can’t picture myself travelling with these ‘phones, which is a shame as it would be fantastic not to have to waste hours remixing everything when I get back to the studio. Unfortunately, I think I’ll stick to my K271 mkIIs for the road, even with their lack of bass response, purely as they feel more robust and have a detachable cable. Oh, and their closed back so I’ll annoy fewer people in coffee shops!

More about the music…

I think, up until now, I’ve been guilty of trying to make each post a wonderful technical resource, as such, I’ve mostly completely overlooked the most important aspect: the music. So from now on, I will post regular, short reviews and opinions on the deep house tracks I like. Or don’t.

Let’s start straight away with Juan Lombardo‘s Deep Track (Original Mix). Released on Deep Nota Records -a label on which I always keep an eye- this, as I’m sure you can tell from the title, is a deep track. Some of the synth sound design comes from the more techy end of the spectrum, but the arrangement and the production mean that this is rooted firmly in deep house territory.

A percussion-led intro builds as the synth opens up, before the bass kicks in just after a minute. This, for me, is where the track sounds it’s weakest, with the bass not quite sitting happily and gelling with the drums and percussion for me. All changes though at 2.03 where, after a breakdown, the track drops and really kicks things off: the additional elements really tying everything together.

After that, the rest of the track rolls along, with several more brief breakdowns keeping everything moving. If anything, I would love an extended version, with a few more bars between the breakdowns, such is my love for this groove as it rolls along. Straight into my set list and definitely worth a listen.

Testing Times

I read a lot of reviews of audio tech products, synths, preamps, compressors, EQs, software and hardware and the reviews I read are generally incredibly thorough. Boutique outboard is dismantled to check build quality, given the Windt Hummer test to check for potential ground loop problems and distortion and bandwidth figures quoted; and that’s all in addition to how it sounds. There is little to complain about in terms of detail.

However, is that review sufficient to make a purchasing decision? A lot of these reviews seem to lack one critical component: a blinded scientific comparison between the product under review and its competitors. I know this would add complexity to a review: it would take at least two people for a start, and other pieces of gear may not be available for comparison, but I think this type of test would really allow people to make better informed purchases.

For example, when I read a review that describes a new digital converter as, let’s say, producing ‘an open, clear sound with good separation of individual instruments and excellent stereo imaging’, I would have more confidence in that statement if the reviewer was able to tell this unit apart from its competitors, or perhaps cheaper competitors, in a blinded test.

I remember reading an article in which a number of top engineers took part in a ‘shootout’ between D/A converters, there was no clear consensus on one unit in particular sounding ‘better’. Unfortunately, these were all high-end units; it would have been very interesting if some prosumer and consumer-level converters were also included. Would the golden ears be able to choose between Apogee and M-Audio, or Prism and MOTU? I wonder, though, if perhaps the industry might be scared of the results.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the sound, and that is often highly subjective. Given that the end product is more commonly delivered as compressed mp3s, rather than CDs or vinyl these days, perhaps the arguments about squeezing every last sample of quality from the studio is less relevant now than it used to be. I’ve not heard people in the clubs complaining that the bassline is from a soft-synth rather than a MiniMoog, so perhaps I’m worrying over nothing…

Update- For the Price of Cheap Monitors

After writing the aforementioned blog, I came across a post in the IDMf site, which reminded me of an article I had seen in Sound on Sound magazine (my go to source for all things audio tech). While looking searching for the article I was sure I had seen and not just imagined, I came across these two articles:

Should I mix on high-end headphones or low-end monitors?

Mixing on headphones

And thought that, given my recent blog, that it made sense to advertise their sage advice here. I have to say, you rarely go wrong with SoS!

For the Price of Cheap Monitors

When it comes to choosing a first pair of monitors, today’s producer is spoiled for choice. The number options around the £250-£350 mark is almost overwhelming. When I was getting into production again a couple of years ago, I thought that a pair of monitors was one of the first things I had to have, so rushed out for a pair of KRK Rokits.

They did the job I suppose. The bright yellow cones certainly gave my ‘studio’ as it was then some gravitas; but now, with hindsight, I’m not certain that was the best way to spend the money… While I’m well aware that all of this advice is subjective, and that five people may well give you five different answers, I’m tempted to say this: If your budget is under about £300/$500, don’t buy monitors, buy headphones.

Now, as with all rules, there are exceptions. If your room is already acoustically treated, or it’s full of soft furniture, irregularly stacked book cases and heavy curtains, you might be fine to go and spend your whole budget on monitors, but, with my room at least, coupled with the fact I needed to know how far down the low end of that kick drum went, I wouldn’t have gone with small monitors, I’d have bought a pair of Sennheiser HD650s from the outset.

Yes, headphones have their shortcomings: they exaggerate the stereo field for example, you might pan more conservatively than you would on speakers, and reverb decisions might be different as you won’t get the benefit of your room reflections. Plugins like 112 dB’s Redline Monitor can help, as can a headphone amp like SPL’s Phonitor or 2Control, which can feed some of the left signal to the right, to simulate the ‘crosstalk’ you would get from speakers. Although, with the amount the SPL units cost, you could invest in some good monitors and acoustic treatment! Still on my wishlist for late night production though.

A set of monitors will make your studio look more like a studio, but you need to be aware of the limitations of cheap monitors in untreated rooms: limited bass extension, problems with flutter echoes and reflections, peaks and troughs in the level of various frequencies across the room. All those things can be compromising your mixing decisions. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t get around some of these limitations by spending a lot of time listening to commercial mixes and learning how your room sounds. In my, albeit humble, opinion, however, at low budgets headphones have fewer cons than monitors. Try out a pair of HD650s or Beyer-Dynamic DT-880s one day and see how you get on…

This post was first published as a news item for NowThenRecords.

The Maschine Mikro

Following the success of Native Instruments’ Maschine comes the Maschine Mikro, a stripped down piece of hardware for those with either more limited wallets, or those needing a bit more in the way of portability, but with exactly the same power of the Maschine software.

If you’ve not checked out the Maschine before it is, fundamentally, a groovebox: everything you need to make a complete tune (once you add a computer…), albeit with the advantage of a full-size screen, rather than squinting and menu scrolling on the grooveboxes you may have used before. Having myself previously struggled with a Yamaha RMX-1 and a Roland MC-303, I’m quite glad in the change of working method! However, as Maschine has no real synth engine of its own, it perhaps has more in common with Akai’s MPC range of sampling boxes, although Maschine does have the useful ability to host VST instruments and effects.

The take-home point is that the Maschine hardware is just a controller: it needs to be connected to your computer running the Maschine software to do anything. My main reason for buying a Maschine Mikro was that I was in the market for a new pad controller and percussion library anyway, so Maschine seemed like the perfect choice, with the alternative workflow of the Maschine software an added bonus. The pads have a great feel to them and have encouraged me to develop my finger drumming skills, and the smaller footprint fits in my studio setup more easily than the original Maschine.

The included sounds are very comprehensive: they range from world percussion, through 60’s acoustic kits and on to contemporary electronic kits. In addition to the drum and percussion sounds, there are also a number of synth and musical samples, ready to be mapped to the pads.

I’d almost forgotten how inspirational it was to just play some sounds in live, and add all those deep house conga fills in in real time. There are loops and grooves that I just don’t think I’d have come up with I’d been programming with the mouse. Also, as mentioned before, Maschine can host VST plugins. I’m imagining that I will be taking advantage of this in the near future, as I get to grips with Logic Pro, and may well end up using Maschine as a VST ‘wrapper’.

For me though, the most useful feature is one that allows Maschine to fit in with my workflow in Ableton Live. Before arranging, I work predominantly in the clip view. Maschine allows you to drag loops you’ve created in the Maschine sequencer plugin into an empty clip in Live as either audio or MIDI. This allows me to create a whole bunch of loops in Maschine, then work with them as audio in Live. That way, if you don’t want to mess around with learning the Maschine sequencer and its scenes and so on, you can use it solely as a loop creation tool and continue to work in your sequencer of choice. So far, I’ve had a couple of bugs with this, which hopefully NI will address in future updates, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by moving a couple of warp markers.

To summarise then, the Maschine software is fairly intuitive and deeply powerful, with a superb range of included sounds, which can be supplemented with additional -pay for- packs. The Maschine Mikro loses some of the real-time control that you get with the original, due to the cut down encoder complement, and you’ll spend more time looking at your computer as the Mikro loses a display. For the money though, I think it’s a pretty inspiring piece of kit. I’ve had mine for three months and feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

This article first appeared on NowThenRecords‘ website.

EDM: The Most Democratic of Arts?

If it was Slash who made me first pick up a guitar, it was Noel Gallagher who made me want to join a band. In a recent interview, Noel was heard to say “any f*cker can make dance music”. This quote led to some major activity on Twitter, with the consensus being that he was probably right, but that there is a difference to making dance music, and making good dance music, which is probably fair. Tim Exile put it well when he tweeted that “making dance music is the new gaming”. I have to say, I think it’s great; it means that electronic music is one step closer to becoming the purest, most egalitarian and democratic art form.

You can now have more studio power with a cheap PC and a Computer Music cover disc than The Beatles had. Even if you go back to perhaps one of the last big shifts in accessible recording, the Tascam Portastudio, you were still looking at a sizeable investment, particularly once you added microphones and effects units etc. Now, even with freeware VSTs, you can make some professional quality tracks. I spent significantly more money than I had on my Virus TI, but my freeware Juno and SH-101 still see frequent use.

Everyone has always had the ability to make music, even if that was just banging out a beat on a rock and a bit of old bone. Now though, nearly anyone can not only make music, but also record it and distribute it to the world. You’ve got to admit, that’s a pretty impressive step forward. The issue now though has become, not making your music, but getting people to listen to it.

I’m glad that electronic music production is more accessible. If you’re willing to put the hours in searching Soundcloud, you can find some outstanding tunes, some of the experimental electronica can be fantastic, but, for the dj, you might find that one track that differentiates you from the Beatport top ten-playing crowd…

This post first appeared as a news article for Now Then Records.

Of Monitors and of Monitoring…

So, you’ve been producing on your headphones or some old hi-fi speakers, and you’re ready to go out and get yourself a new pair of studio monitors. This is going to be the addition to your studio that really changes your productions: you’ll be able to hear all those little details you couldn’t hear before; you’ll eq better, compress better and pan better. You’ve got a budget of, lets be mathematical about this and say £x, so you go out and buy a new pair of monitors that cost exactly £x, the best pair of monitors you can afford. Is that the right thing to do? In most situations, probably not.

It might be easier if you think of your budget not as how you have to spend on your monitors, but how much to spend on your monitoring. Being able to hear what is going on in your mixes is perhaps the most important thing to get right when trying to make informed decisions about your productions and making mixes that translate well to other systems. What you hear isn’t just a function of your monitors, but of a whole chain, from the DA conversion in your soundcard, through any monitor controllers, the monitors themselves, how the monitors are placed and what the rest of the room is like. You may well find that you get the best monitoring environment if you apportion a, sometimes not insignificant, part of your budget to some of these other variables, rather than blowing the whole lot on the monitors themselves.

As you might guess, this is a pretty big topic, and so there will probably be a few posts on more specific aspects of the subject. I’ll try and give a bit of an overview here of some of the things that have worked for me, which don’t cost a huge amount of money and, hopefully, don’t require that you rearrange all your furniture to get yourself a decent monitoring environment.

The first thing, that has probably made the biggest difference for me, is to try and get rid of any hiss and hum that might be emanating from your speakers. Ground loops can be a big problem here. If you can, get hold of a power filter/surge protector (the latter is a good idea anyway) with multiple outlets. These don’t have to cost an arm and a leg and can help get rid of some ground loops. Different power outlets can often be at different potentials, leading to current flow when different bits of gear are plugged into different outlets. By plugging computer, soundcard and monitors into the same outlet, you can sometimes get rid of some problems, just make sure and count up how many amps you’re drawing! If you’re using a laptop, sometimes disconnecting the power and running on the battery can make a huge difference. For critical mixing tasks, this can sometimes be a big help.

Try and mount your monitors on proper stands with as much mass as possible, some can be filled with sand for this purpose. If your monitors are just sitting on your desk, you can get problems as the sound from the speakers bounces of the desk and mixes back in with the sound coming at you directly, this can cause comb filtering. Additionally, placing some foam ‘wedgies’ –the type with the pyramid patterns are good for this, and not too expensive- at the acoustic ‘mirror points’ on the side walls to try and break up as many reflections as you can is often a good first step on the road to more thorough acoustic treatment.

Additionally, if you’re using stands, it can sometimes be easier to achieve a good monitor placement. You’ll want to try to get the monitors forming an equilateral –or sometimes isosceles!- triangle with your head, pointing in slightly (if you can’t really see the sides of the monitor cabinets, that’s usually pretty good) with the tweeters at ear level or the monitors tilted slightly so a line coming straight out of the tweeters is aimed at your ear height.

If you can, try not to have your setup with speakers tightly in the corners of rooms or against a wall, although sometimes this is unavoidable. If your speakers have ‘placement correction’ controls –they often high pass filter the bass or allow cut or boost of the low and/or high frequencies- experiment with those to try and find the best settings. To do this, you’ll want some reference material. One easy way to test things is to draw an ascending chromatic scale in your DAW playing back a sine wave in a soft synth. Sit in your monitoring position and hit play, the notes should sound at equal volumes. If you hear louder or quieter notes –due to interference creating room nulls and resonances- you can adjust the settings, or at least be aware of which notes are problematic and make informed mix decisions. The excellent Sound on Sound has a bass staircase mp3 here. Additionally, playing back some tracks you know well can be a big help and never underestimate the power of listening to your mixes on as many systems as possible!

That probably covers it for the quick and easy fixes for now, but chances are good that we’ll revisit a lot of these things in future posts. If anyone has some more easy solutions and suggestions to improving your monitoring, I look forward to hearing them!


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