If you were to ask your top 3 to 5 favorite djs how they make music, you'd get 3 to 5 totally different answers. The sheer amount of tools available to anyone with just a laptop and a pair of headphones is nothing short of astronomical compared to even just 10 years ago. For Andre Crom, head of Off Records, it's a mostly digital landscape. His latest EP, Mind Control on Sleaze, has been supported by many of the scenes biggest players, and in this extensive tech talk, he breaks down the process, as well as his favorite tools. This is a long, but extremely valuable read, so get those pens and paper out and take some notes.
Hi guys! Thanks for checking out my gear tips. With this feature, I'll introduce you to many of the plugins and techniques that I used to create my recent EPs on Sleaze, Ovum, and OFF. As I'm not much of a hardware geek, this feature will be more focused on a few key (midi) devices for my work, as well as plugins and mostly processes - Andre
Skill beats equipment.
While it's nice to have a big studio with tons of hardware, don't believe you cannot do great music without it. There are people with a huge machine park whose music is just average or who never get anything finished, and others who do something amazing just with Ableton and a couple of freeware plugins. I got demos where I told the artist "nice track, but the bassline sounds very plastic and digital", and got the reply "but it was done with an analogue synth!".
I do have a couple of hardware synths (Vermona Mono Lancet, Roland SH-01A, Roland JV1080 & E-MU Vintage Keys), as well as a TR8, a Beatstep Pro, and an Elektron Analogue Heat. But I rarely use any of these, as I feel my plugins often sound just as good, and the benefit of having total recall and being able to improve and tweak any element at any time beats the advantage of being able to touch knobs and the slightly warmer sound of analogue gear. However, I do use midi controllers a lot, to be able to create VST automation in real-time. To sum it up, you can reach a good sound both with digital and/or analogue ingredients - but what you DEFINITELY need in either case is experience born out of practice. And don't postpone doing music because you think you lack equipment, that's just an excuse for being lazy or scared of failure.
This is already my second unit of its kind, as I've traveled around the world with my first one and hammered it to death. It's lightweight, very compact, has 25 decent keys, 8 pads, and 8 encoders. This is in most cases all I need. How I use it:
- Pad 1 is mapped to trigger a filter on/off that kills the bass
- Pad 2 triggers the group with all other drums on/off
- Pad 3 triggers the synth or percussions group on/off
- Pad 4 triggers a noise on/off if I use it
- Pad 5 triggers the vocal on/off if there is one
It's extremely useful to be able to quickly mute/unmute channels. This helps to focus and zoom in on single elements and to test different ways to arrange a track. I also work with a lowcut on the bass for as much time as possible to protect my ears. For this, it's very handy to (de)activate the bass with one finger-tap on a big hardware-pad, instead of finding the tiny button of the plugin each time within Ableton.
The rotary encoders I mostly map like this:
#1 adjusts the bass filter frequency
#2 adjusts an auto filter on a reference track (if I use one)
#3 adjusts the amount of reverb on the lead
#4 adjusts the amount of delay on the lead
#5 adjusts the cutoff on the lead
#6 adjusts the resonance on the lead
#7 adjusts another parameter of the lead, like decay
#8 might adjust something like the cutoff on a noise if I use it
Having hands-on control of these parameters helps me to jam with the loop/arrangement, to understand how to lay out the automation, and to record them. I feel it's often better to do this with knobs than with a mouse or drawing it in, as twisting a knob and recording it can make the music feel more alive and "human".
Everybody and their mother has it. Some people think it sounds good, some don't... I'm not a huge fan of its sound, but with some FX on it, it's ok. And the usability is really nice, it's so easy to jam on this, which is its biggest plus in my opinion.
I used it for the track "Feel" on my Ovum EP. The track basically consists only of TR8 drums, Native Instruments "Driver" (which heats up the whole signal as it's on the master bus), and the vocal which I found in some sample library. It was a very fast track to make, which is in large thanks to the limited gear I used for it.
Most of the time I just use plugins as step sequencers, but when I want to have hands-on control over generating a sequence, the Beatstep Pro is great. For example, the synth lead of my track "Tethys" from my recent Sleaze Records EP was created with it, as well as the complete drum midi patterns.
The best studio headphone I ever used. Great open sound, built like a tank, and affordable. I highly recommend an open or semi-open studio headphone, as closed ones put more pressure on your ear, and give you a very isolated feeling. The only exception is when you work in a loud environment (which is not a good idea anyway as you need to raise the volume on your headphones which can mess with your ears).
These things just cost $17.50 USD but can literally save your ears. I have a light tinnitus since a year, and since then never DJ or even go into a club without them. My advice: start using them before it's too late.
My trusty speakers. Got them 10 years ago or so in a sale... pretty big, good bass, good definition. Back then they cost me less than 1000 € a pair in a sale... I don't think that very expensive monitors should be the first thing one should invest in. Instead, I'd recommend investing into...the room acoustics.
My current room has been a former vocal recording chamber. It's pretty small, maybe 9 square meters or so. Which usually makes for a difficult acoustic. In the case of my room, the whole walls are covered in thick rock wool, covered with a (pretty ugly!) fabric. This is a pretty simple, cheap and not very sophisticated way to treat a room, but it's certainly effective. My frequency response range in the room is very linear, the only 2 issues being a slightly muddy bass, due to the small room size and absence of dedicated bass traps, and the feeling of the room being a bit TOO dry. With bass traps and diffusers, these problems could be treated, but I know the sound very well know and can work efficiently here. I believe (and most experienced producers will tell you the same), that your room sound is much more important than expensive speakers or a great soundcard.
Ableton stock instruments and effects
Especially when you start out with production, it's easy to think you need all kind of fancy (and pricey) external instruments and effects. But I actually do love a lot of Ableton stock instruments, and use them for most of the standard tasks, like EQ-ing (EQ8), Compressing (Compressor), volume control (Utility), using single samples (Sampler), reverb (Reverb, or the Max4Live Convolution reverb), Filtering (AutoFilter), Panning, Chorus, Flanger... even the Overdrive and Saturation Plugins do a good job. And Corpus is a really great tool to create weird metallic and glassy sounds.
Sure, they don't look fancy like some 3rd party plugins, but at the end, it's about the sound and ease of use. And especially with the latter in mind, the stock Ableton plugins are a very straightforward way to do the job.
I really like it. On the track "Mind Control" of my current Sleaze EP, you can hear it on the massively overdriven 909 kick, as well as on the stabs that start at minute 1.
It's a multi-effect-processor, combining filtering/eq-ing with distortion, reverb, compression, and delay.
Throw it on an ordinary 909 Kick, skip through some presets, and you can end up with a completely transformed massive Kick/bassline hybrid that can carry your track in its own for a minute or two. Use it on a rimshot with extreme settings, and you might get an amazing lead sound that sounds nothing like its source. You can trigger the single effects on and off and adjust their intensity, so it's a real hands-on way to treat your sounds.
I use it a lot for my drums when I want something different than 808 or 909 drums. I have a bunch of self-made sample kits for kicks, hats, snares, claps, and so on, and love how Battery lets me sculpt the samples with its ADSR curve, the built-in FX, and also the randomizing capabilities with the "Humanize" function.
My choice for 909 drums when I want to keep things simple (as I always do!). After trying a bunch of libraries with tape saturated and otherwise elaborately sampled 909 drums, I came to realize that it works better for me to have a very straightforward interface with quite "standard" 909 sound as Drumazon offers it. The benefit here is that each parameter is very finely adjustable, e.g. you can tweak the tuning and decay of the kick with ease and in detail. And then I like to use effect plugins like Trash2, to process the sound and give it my own character.
Two more great D16 plugins. Decimort is a bitcrusher, who can do a lot more than that. And Devastator is a saturation/overdrive plugin. Both come with tons of presets, that is great to inspire you, and completely change the source sound; but you can also easily dial in your own settings and adjust them in ease and detail.
This is a pretty particular plugin because it can do so many jobs, from bitcrushing to panning to delaying and more... Especially good if you like to do a bit more freaky stuff. It's pretty much my first choice when it comes to giving sounds stereo panorama, using the "Haas Delay" preset.
With the instruments inside the library and the WORLD of other ensembles available for free in the Native Online Library, this might be the best value for money you can find in any VST on the market. Also, for some reason I can't exactly the name, to my ears Reaktor sounds more alive than most other VST sounds out there.
Some of my favorite ensembles are 2-OSC, and JP-4C, as well as Monark.
An amazing (and free!) plugin that has samples of all kinds of iconic '90s rave chords and a bunch other retro sounds. If you want great old school chords, this is the way to go.
My studio neighbor FLUG introduced me to this one. It's a 10 year old library for Kontakt, and really hard to find these days. But if you do manage to find one, you get an amazing selection of sounds; I use the FX sounds in almost every production since a year. You hear it all over "Rhea", "Tethys" and "Dione", it delivered those crazy noise and fx swooshes.
It just sounds really warm, full and alive. With VST's, you often have the issue of them sounding too plastic and artificial - Diva is mostly an exception from that. I used it to do the lead in "Saturn":
It's a free Max4Live step sequencer and a great creative tool. Especially if you're not great at the keyboard, it can help you to come up with interesting leads, basslines and so on. You can even use it to create drum sequences. Oh, and it's also free. I used it to create the timeshift-effect on the lead of Rhea:
Another free M4L step sequencer just focused on Acid Lines. Fewer ways to influence the sequence than in Rozzer, but its simplicity can be a benefit. And it creates overlapping notes which give you an acid glide effect, something which Rozzer does not do.
The Softube/UAD emulation of the much-loved, sold-out and therefore now crazy expensive bitcrusher/filter hardware unit. Like many UAD plugins, it's ridiculously expensive, but it does sound really good. I grabbed it during one of UAD's big sales, and use it on almost every track.
Randomization is likely the easiest way to give live and human feel to your productions.
Here are a few ways:
- use your DAW's (or an external) midi velocity randomization tool on each of your drum channels. Just 5 or 10 percent (or midi increments) are usually enough, to give a subtle feeling of changing volume, which might not sound very evident on a single channel, but in the sum, will add greatly to keep your loop alive and interesting.
- use the Max4Live "LFO TOOL", to randomize parameters of your VSTs. For example, you might try to slightly randomize the decay on each hit of your hi-hat, or the cutoff of your synth.
- randomize melodies, bassline, even drum patterns. As described above, Rozzer or Sting are two great and free recommendations here.
Use your voice.
You can hear my voice on many of my productions, like "Mind Control" of the Sleaze EP, "Consciousness" of the recent OFF EP, "Work It" on Ovum and many more.
Of course, not everybody likes vocals in their music. But if you do, try working with your own voice rather than spending endless hours on searching for cool samples. It's easier than you might think! First, get over the belief "my voice sucks". Everybody thinks that, but that's just you being shy. Chances are, everybody around you thinks your voice is okay.
Here are the steps how I find ideas for lyrics, record and process vocals:
1. Find a few words which you want to say. Go through your track collection (preferably older tracks to not use something recently, or a different music genre). Or take a book. Or a science article or... you get the point. Just try to find something that resonates with you and fits the context of your music.
2. Playback your loop on your headphones. Speak and record each word/line you want to use, while trying to get immersed in the music, matching the vibe and rhythm of your production. Try different energy levels and intonations of each word/line. Often the same word can sound tacky and cheesy when spoken with too much "effort", but really cool when spoken in a slightly disconnected, laidback way. It's natural that you may have to repeat each vocal for a minute or two before you relax and it becomes effortless and sounds cool.
3. Loop through your recorded vocals while playing back the track. Make sure the vocal loop sits tight on the groove of the track. When you find a word/line you like, start to process it. I often pitch my voice down by 1-2 semitones, put a bit of vocoder on it, and almost always reverb and delay. Of course you can also chop the vocal and do crazy stuff with it... the Rodhad remix for Howling is a great example of cool "chopped vocal processing": (http://bit.ly/1jG2NvN) Here you can really experiment; although I personally do like to keep it relatively close to my natural voice to keep it recognizable and make it a trademark element of my productions.
Ableton takes AGES to bounce? Here's the solution.
For some reason beyond my understanding, Ableton (for me at least) often takes way longer to render a project than the playtime - sometimes 20 minutes or more. Should you have the same issue, you can easily trick the program to render in real-time by inserting an "external instrument" into a muted channel. For this to work, you need to activate the "audio to" and "audio from" channels in the external instrument. Just make sure you don't get "CPU dropouts" as these can result in crackles on your bounce.
Demo master your tracks before playing them out or sending them as a demo.
As a rule of thumb, your tracks should have -10 DB RMS, as most professionally mastered tracks have around the same perceived volume. Use a metering tool and a combination of compression and limiting to get your demos to that volume. If you have no idea what this paragraph is about, you can use LANDR to get demo masters.
Do you know this feeling? You get all buzzed up about your new track, play it on your next gig, expect everybody to go crazy, and...clear the dancefloor. Maybe you realize, it's not compressed enough, or has too little or too much bass, or sounds muddy, or dull, or the hook does not cut through, or whatever...
The way around this is to A/B compare your production to a more or less similar finished and professionally mastered track that you KNOW sounds great in a club. If you are quite inexperienced, it's best to use the track of another established artist for this. But if you have a couple good EP's out already and tested some of your own tracks on the floor and they worked great, you can also use your own material for reference.
Compare your new production to the reference. Mentally zoom into each element one after the other:
- General balance of lows/mids/highs
- balance of the kick vs the sub-bass (usually the trickiest part, as not many people have really accurate sounding listening environments - headphones are the solution)
- how close/far does each element feel? (this is defined by the volume and amount of reverb)
- where are the elements in the stereo image?
- how compressed are the tracks?
That's it from me for now, I hope these tips are helpful for you!
Check out my recent EP's on Sleaze, OFF, and Ovum:
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