Electronic music production has become a highly accessible art form since I began in the mid 1990’s. Your average laptop has the power and memory to handle an extensive, virtual recording studio. This luxury has afforded modern day producers an unlimited number of tracks and instruments at their fingertips and with all this room for power and flexibility, it is easy to over-produce and over-think the way we produce a tracks. This month I want to focus our attention on the simple, minimal and critical. I want to explore the less is more approach and create space for your tracks to live and breathe. I was lucky enough to participate in the rise of digital recording, so here are some of the tips that helped me achieve the sound that I was after.
Minimize your setup
Over the years I have seen so many new producers purchase every keyboard, drum machine and plugin that they can afford because they assume that they need all of these tools to produce great sounding music. Adversely, I have heard people exclaim that they haven’t gotten around to producing their own music because they don’t have the setup to get started. They assume that they need a $1000 audio interface, a dozen or so vintage synthesizers and every plugin known to man. Thankfully, both parties are very incorrect. A $200 audio interface, a decent pair of studio monitors or studio headphones, a DAW and imagination are all that are required. All of the major DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) like Ableton Live and Logic Pro include audio plugins that emulate various drum machines, synthesizers and audio effects. I too fell ill with “gear acquisition syndrome” and purchased every bit of kit that I could get my hands on. At the end of the day, this obsession ended up hindering the quality and quantity of my music. I would be hell bent on using my new $2000 synthesizer on a track and waste hours trying to make it work, only to scrap it in the end. I found that when I was travelling, I would be more productive because I wasn’t relying on gear and would have to find new and creative ways to manipulate samples and plugins. I found that when I got a new computer and I hadn’t loaded all 79,000 plugins on it, that I was able to think clearer and use the tools that I had on hand more effectively. I have seen producers who have terabytes of sample packs, clicking through endless seas of sound. I am very picky of what samples I keep on hand. If I load in a sample pack and I am not finding it very useful or it doesn’t fit my sound as an artist, I delete it. I find it much more important to rely on my own creativity and imagination. In the end, less is more. It is called creativity within constraints. There is like some professional doctor people doing smart science and stuff on it and its true. More importantly, try to acquire the essentials to begin producing music and reflex that creativity. Make your new diet simple; computer, audio interface, monitors, DAW, maybe a drum machine/keyboard, hand picked samples and your imagination. You will be a lean, mean, production machine.
Make Space, Not War
When you start putting the elements of your track together; drums, synths, etc, often times these elements can create some unwanted tension or drown each other out in your mix. Other times, when all of the musical elements are combined, your whole mix can feel claustrophobic and muddy. Why spend an hour programming your hi-hats only to have them drowned out by a vocal sample? Why spend days with sound design, only to have important elements feel smashed together? These scenarios are common and luckily there is an easy fix. There are many simple tools to ensure that all of the elements of your track are heard. Panning and equalization are the most rudimentary and effective hence their inevitable inclusion on all hardware and software based mixers. I often use the analogy of decorating a room. When you are decorating, you wouldn’t put the couch, TV, coffee table and a painting all in a pile in the middle of the floor, would you? You would have the couch in the center, the TV on the left wall, the painting on the right wall and the coffee table slightly to the right of the couch. This goes the same for your panning, or the distribution of your audio signal to the left or right channel. Your kick will be placed dead center 99.99% of the time but maybe those hihats that you spent an hour on, they might be placed 10% to the left and your vocal sample will be 14% to the right. Having this little bit of panning can free up a lot of sonic space for your elements to shine. The same rule applies for your EQing. If there is a lot of low end in your synth sound, maybe roll it off to leave room for your bass line to shine through more. If you don’t need all of the high end of the audio spectrum on your bass, roll it off to free up space for your vocals. Other, more complex techniques like side-chain compression and stereo imaging work wonders as well to ensure all of your elements sit perfectly with one another. Call it Audio Feng-Shui. As always, I encourage you to research the thousands of YouTube tutorials on the subject and learn these techniques on your time and at your own pace.
Your track is done, well, kind of. The idea is there but not all of the elements are sitting perfectly for some reason. Is there too much? Is there too little? You decide to put the idea aside for a while, only to have it die a slow death on an external hard in a shoe box in your closet. This is a very common scenario. Want to save the lives of your demos moving forward? Easy then, lets do what I call and “Audio Audit” and ask ourselves, “does it work?” I start by listening to the whole track and hear what I was working towards. Was I trying to make a piano driven house track or a kick heavy techno track? Once I realize what my original idea was, I listen with very critical ears and decide what I like and what I don’t. I solo out each track one by one and decide if it works or not. If it doesn’t work, I delete it faster than a drunken text message. Now, on paper, this seems logical and pragmatic but it isn’t that simple in practice. You may have spent three hours programming and sequencing a synthesizer track. You spent more time with it this week than your girlfriend but it isn’t helping the overall vibe of your track. It hurts on an emotional level to think about deleting it but I assure you that you will be ok. It either works or it doesn’t. So when I open up older projects, or even whilst I’m working, I take a really harsh perspective on the elements of my song. Sometimes I will delete 90% of the tracks in my project and strip it back to it most essential elements and then rebuild it again from there. Usually by the second time I am building up the song, I have a much clearer idea of what will help complete the track. Life is too short for unnecessary audio tracks. If the thought of deleting a certain musical element seems unbearable, I will save it to one of my own personal sample folders. This way, I can call upon it at any time in the future for another track and it makes the whole process easier to carry on with. This tip is simple, it either works well or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, delete it!