Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nova Science Now Explores Autotune

Airing on PBS tonight is Nova Science Now with Neil deGrasse Tyson on which they will be exploring, among other things, Autotune and the implications it has on modern music. It'll also be airing multiple times throughout the month, so check your local listings for details. Thanks to my friend Li'l Craigy McDonald for the tip!

Free Dubstep/Drum n' Bass Presets for Logic ES2 & Massive

I was catching up on some reading in the production section of Dubstepforum.com and came across a thread about cool bass patches in Logic. Forum user Depone posted this link to some outstanding techy bass and lead sounds for Logic's ES2 that are perfect for dubstep, drum n' bass or any other style looking for dark, gritty synth sounds. The ES2 is criminally underrated, and these patches are some of the better ones I've heard. Nice job, Depone and good on you for sharing!

Forum user Chewie posted these dubstep presets for Native Instruments Massive as well!

Cool Burial Interview

And while we're on the topic of dubstep, check out this interview with critic's darlings Burial. It's a couple years old, but it was new to me, so I'm guessing at least some of you probably missed it too. In it, he talks about how he puts together tracks and I can't imagine working that way (won't spoil it for you other than to say it explains the loose timing of his tracks).

One-off RCC Circuit Bent Soviet Suitcase Synthesizer on Ebay

I have the distinct impression it doesn't make much in the way of useful sounds (for most of us, at least), but it certainly looks the business, doesn't it?

Info at the listing...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: D16 Group Nithonat

Product: Nithonat
Manufacturer: D16 Group
Type: AU/VST drum machine
Platforms: VST for Windows XP/2000 or later, VST & AU for OSX 10.4.3 or later.
Price: 79 Euro
Demo: Available at http://www.d16.pl/index.php?menu=225

Roland's TR-606 was originally released as a complement to the infamous TB-303 bassline synthesizer back in 1982. While it certainly is overshadowed in the annals of history by the likes of the TR-808 and TR-909, the 606 was an underrated instrument. While it lacked a famous kick drum like the 808 or 909, it had pleasantly snappy 808-like snares and metallic hi-hats that had a uniquely nasty sound to them. More importantly, the 606 was probably the most suited for live performance of any of the TR family, as it allowed you to edit your beats on the fly while performing and switching patterns. So, having already wowed the world with their takes on the TR-808, the TR-909, and the TB-303, Polish developers the D16 Group set their sites on a software emulation of the 606. Let's see how they fared.

Installation involved downloading an installer and a key file. The installer works as you would expect it to, and upon running Nithonat for the first time, you will be asked to locate where on your hard drive the key file is. You can keep it anywhere you like, you just need to let the software know where. I had no problems with the installation at all. Quick and easy.

Nithonat features a clean, well-organized interface that is split into three main subsections. Starting at the top, we have the Control Module which is used for selecting whether you want to use the internal, TR-like sequencer or your host's sequencer, setting up MIDI learn for tweaking the controls with a hardware controller, and browsing & selecting presets (which can be changed independent of the Patterns, so if you have a beat you like, you can try out different drum kits until you find one you like).

Below this is the Synthesis Module. This is divided into sections for the Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Low and Hi Toms, Cymbal, and Open and Closed Hihats. Unlike the original, the sounds can all be tweaked to alter their timbre. Keep in mind that these settings are for things such as tone and decay, so while the sounds are editable, it's always going to sound like a 606. This is an emulation, not an attempt at a full-fledged drum synth like Sonic Charge's Microtonic or Waldorf's Attack. The fact that these controls can be assigned to knobs on your MIDI controller, though, certainly provides the possibility for a much more 'alive' sounds on the fly. Here you'll also find Mute and Solo settings for each sound, as well as output assignments for Nithonat's 8 assignable outputs (one for each of the 7 drum sounds and a 'trigger out' option for all you old schoolers). The unit defaults to the standard stereo outputs, but the mutli outs are a nice option allowing you to give each sound its own processing.

Finally, we have the Internal Sequencer. You can, of course, use your host's sequencer to program beats if you like (where the drum sounds are mapped to the General MIDI standard or your own custom drum map), but if you want the authentic TR experience, it's ready and waiting for you in this section. This is definitely the most complex section of the interface. It starts out with the Tempo setting. Of course you can sync Nithonat to your host's clock, but if you'd prefer to use the clock in Nithonat's sequencer, you can set the tempo here. Next to that, you'll find settings for engaging pattern write mode, a knob for selecting the amount of shuffle, a window for selecting and changing patterns, and a row of buttons governing some very useful functions, the coolest of which is the Random function.

This lets you randomize the pattern for an instrument (or Accent pattern) to come up with instant variations on the current one. In this mode, the instrument's Level knob selects the amount of randomization, so you can go from just slight tweaks to a pattern you really like, to something very different. If you like the results, you click the Tap/Accept button, or if you don't click Undo. If you've gone through several different Random variations and decide one you created a couple steps back was the best one, you can use the Prev and Next buttons to navigate back to that pattern. VERY handy! The Shift function is also very handy, allowing you to move all the steps in a pattern forward or backward in time step by step. You'll also find buttons here for Undo, Copy, Paste, and Clear, as well as settings for pattern length, and Tap Mode.

Nithonat's sequencer allows you to enter patterns in a number of ways. The above-mentioned Tap Mode lets you play an instrument sound in real time and what you play is instantly quantized to one of the 16 steps. This is a lot of fun and brought me back to playing around with my first drum machine, an old Korg DDM-110 that had a similar function. I find this mode to be the most intuitive, but if you want exact precision, you can also program in step time by turning on individual steps for each instrument until you have the pattern you like. The feel of patterns can be further changed by changing the Time Scale, or the number of steps per quarter note. This defaults to 4 steps per quarter note, but can also be changed to 8, 6, or 3.

Once you have a number of patterns in the Nithonat's sequencer, you'll probably want to chain them into a song. In the old days, this was a laborious process where you'd select a step in the song, assign it a pattern and the number of times it is to repeat and so on until you had the entire song constructed. Nithonat wisely abandons this approach for a much more intuitive one. Basically, each pattern is assigned to a MIDI note, so you can switch patterns in real time simply by playing the appropriate note on the keyboard. You can record these into your host's sequencer, so upon playback, all the appropriate pattern changes take place. Of course, this function would also come in handy for live performance if you're doing a "Live PA" type show where you're creating the arrangement on the fly... or even if you just want to extend that middle 8 a bit because the crowd is really digging it.

I've really only scratched the surface as far as the features on offer here. It's obvious that a lot of time and thought went into Nithonat's design, and the possibilities are pretty deep if you care to get into them. I don't have a real TR-606 to compare it to, but to my ears it sounds like the real deal.
Any differences between Nithonat and a real 606 are so slight that one could pretty easily close the gap with some slight EQ tweaks. Obviously, the sound shaping possibilities take it a bit beyond what is possible with a real 606, but these variations are subtle and still faithful to the original 606 sound.

The sequencer is very authentic as well, and although my guess is that most people will sequence sounds using their host's sequencer, there really is something to be said for doing things the old way. It tends to make you think in a slightly different way, and the end results often reflect that. I also think the internal sequencer is a little more fun when it comes to experimenting (especially with the wonderful Random function). The sequencer section of the plug-in is not exactly intuitive, though, so most people should expect to refer to the very thorough documentation. This illuminates things pretty well and should have you up and running in no time.

Nithonat is not going to be an instrument that is going to appeal to everyone. As I mentioned, the 606 never really got most people as excited as the 808 an the 909. But that's actually what I like about it. I absolutely love that D16 chose an underrated and perhaps lesser known instrument to emulate and I'd love to see them continue on that path with future instruments. They've really done an excellent job maintaining the balance between added functionality and reverence for the original in a way other companies sometimes miss. I can't wait to see what they do next! (9/10)

Electrix Filter Factory on Ebay

Info at the listing...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thinking Small

When most of us search for samples in a TV, movie, or radio recording, we tend to listen for the 'broad strokes' - the big, obvious sounds. This is all well and good, but if you do the opposite and listen for the little, incidental sounds in between the obvious ones, you might be surprised at what you find. A cough, the squeak of a wooden floor, breathing, fans and air conditioners, the ambient hum of a city. All of these can be great sources of unusual sounds if you take the time to look for them.

For instance, I just finished up a new song tonight in which I used the rustling of my lyric sheet and a breath from in between the actual singing on the track before I edited it out and used it as a sort of odd, rhythmic loop that fit perfectly in the intro of the track. What's great about stuff like this is that when it is removed from its context, visual or otherwise, it becomes difficult to tell what the source sound was... it just sounds like a great, weird, organic sound.

Of course, you don't need to use the sounds as is. Use them as a starting point and try playing them out of their natural range or hitting it with a big ol' dose of time stretching. EQ it unnaturally, filter it, distort it, reverse it. Treat your samples like the oscillators on a synth... just the starting point for you to sculpt something unusual out of.

Korg K-770 on Ebay

Wow, you don't see too many of these.

Info at the listing...

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson Dead?

Michael Jackson was rushed to the hospital this afternoon not breathing and some sites are reporting that he could not be revived.

UPDATE: Guess I can change that question mark to a period. It's been confirmed and officially announced now that Jackson is dead. Say what you will about his bizarre private life (the blame for which I think rests mostly on his parents' shoulders), but the guy was an insanely talented singer and performer. Now for the inevitable flood of Michael Jackson jokes...

Cool New Blog

Saw this one mentioned on Wire to the Ear and thought it might be of interest to you guys. Check it out.

Audio Interview With Vince Clarke

Via Sideline on Red Bull Music Academy:

The Music Instinct: Science & Song

I caught this last night, and since it will be airing throughout June, I thought I would share it here. The Music Instinct: Science & Song explores the hows and whys of music from why some pieces of music can move us to tears to the connection between language and music to the way the brain and ear work together in ways specifically tuned for music to music in the animal world. Really well done and interesting if you're into this sort of thing. Check your local listings, as there should be future airings.

Oldest Known Musical Instrument Discovered

The BBC is reporting that German scientists have dated a recently found primitive flute is around 35,000 years old, making it the oldest musical instrument to be found thus far.

Elektron SIDstation on Ebay

A friend of mine has one of these. I was surprised by how tiny it is!

Info at the listing...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Andy Hughes of The Orb Dies

Pitchfork.com is reporting that Andy Hughes of seminal ambient electronic act The Orb passed away Friday at age 43 after a short illness.

Here is his obituary:

"Andy was a genius who gave so much inspiration and passion to all with his incredible work. He was loved by many aficionados of the trance/ambient genre, but will be especially remembered for his work with Alex Paterson and The Orb, most notably the album Orblivion and single Toxygene, which reached number 4 in the UK charts in 1997. Together with his musical partners Alex Patterson and former members Kris Weston, Simon Phillips and Thomas Fehlmann together with Nick Burton of Westworld fame. Andy created electronic and ambient/techno/house/dub masterpieces. These took him across the globe where he played to masses of fans in countries including the USA, Japan and Canada as well as a sell out concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1998.

Prior to his Orb years he had helped to design and build the studios for Bunk Junk & Genius and worked with many famous artists. He was with the Orb until 1999 during which, along with his musical input including the Live 93 album, he assisted with the building of their Back Passage studio in Clapham.

In 2000 he started producing music on his own and more recently produced music for artists such as Kovak and Basement Jaxx at their neighboring studios in Brixton, London.

Andy was a doting and loving father who always made time for his children Gabriel and Circe and their father’s passing will leave a chasm in both their lives.

Andy’s funeral will take place at West Norwood Crematorium, Norwood Road SE 27on Monday 29th June ’09 at 11.45am.

The service will be open to anyone wishing to attend. It is hoped to arrange a Tribute concert in the future to allow his many fans and friends to meet up."

Fun With Aliasing

No, no, not that kind of Alias. I'm actually referring to audio aliasing. If you've ever messed around with a bit crusher before, you've heard aliasing in action. Bit crushers simply recreate the lower bit depth and sample rates of old samplers and the artifacts the low specs of these machines would impart to audio. (Which we used to try to avoid like the plague, but now, predictably, has become trendy... listen to any current French house if you don't believe me...)

In digital audio, there is something called the Nyquist Theorem. It basically says that a digital audio recording can faithfully reproduce the frequency content of a signal equal to half of the sampling rate. So a sampling rate of 44.1k can reproduce frequencies up to 22k faithfully. Aliasing is what happens when you try to reproduce frequencies that are more than half the sample rate.

When you do this, there are not enough sample cycles to accurately recreate the sound's waveform and this lo-res "picture" ends up sounding like a lower frequency that was never in the original signal. Depending on the frequency content of the original sound, aliasing can sound crunchy, gritty, ringing, atonal, and any combination thereof.

Since aliasing mostly occurs from the inability to accurately reproduce higher frequencies, you can imagine that if you send a sound that is made up
mostly of high frequencies, the aliasing will be more extreme - even to the point where all you get are the aliases. In fact, with the right sounds, you'll get all manner of digital shrieks and squawks. Try loading up a glockenspiel or high-pitched bell sound and running it through your favorite bit-crusher with the sample rate set extremely low (5-10k). The lower sample rate makes it near impossible to recreate these high pitched sounds and what comes out bears scant resemblance to the original signal. You may find you even get vastly different sounds from each different key.

If you have an old hardware sampler that allows you to sample at an extremely low rate (I keep my old Ensoniq EPS-16+ around for this exact purpose), you can get great, gritty soundscapes
by taking a long sample of a sound at a very low rate, and then playing sustaining notes much lower than the original root key of the sample so they stretch waaaaaaaay out. Instant industrial ambience!
And with that, I will stop pretending you ever made it past the picture of Jennifer Garner and actually read this article.

Crumar Trilogy on Ebay

Info at the listing...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Order! Order!

Now that computer processing power is fast enough that most computers have no trouble hosting dozens of plug-in effects and softsynths simultaneously, the potential for experimentation in the studio has never been greater. I've wasted entire afternoons messing around with obscenely long effects chains to see how far away from the source sound I could get. What a lot of beginners don't realize at first is that the order you place your effects in has almost as much influence on how the effects change your source sound as the effects themselves.

When you're building an effects chain using your DAW's insert effects, every effect you add after the first effect is not processing the original, dry sound anymore. Instead, it's processing the sound as it's been changed by all the effects that precede it in the chain. The effects are chained serially. Because of this, it makes sense to think ahead of time when you're building your chains to put the effects in an order that makes sense. Here are some examples:

• No matter what you're doing, EQ is nearly always the best choice as the first effect in your chain. This is so you can cut out the frequencies a particular track might not need. For instance, let's say you have a nice, high string part. Even though it's in an higher octave, there will still be low frequencies present in the sound. In the context of a mix, all those low frequencies are doing is adding mud. By cutting out what you don't need, you can free up a lot of space in your mix very easily. But this can also have an impact on how certain effects work...

• The above technique is probably most useful when using compression. Let's say you have a synth bass sound. Typically, you'll want to filter out some of the extremely low frequencies that most stereos won't accurately reproduce anyway... 40Hz and below is pretty common. Let's say you want to put some nice, tight compression on the sound too. If you put the compressor first in your chain, those 40Hz and below subs are going to be triggering the threshold of your compressor even though you're going to EQ them out after the compressor anyway. To have the compressor trigger in a way that is more representive of what the final signal is like, EQ the unneeded frequencies first, thus letting your compressor work only on the audio you are actually using.

• If you're using any kind of distortion, your reverb and/or delay should go last in your chain. If your reverb or delay comes before the distortion, you're not just distorting the original sound, you're distorting the reverb/delay too, which generally sounds like crap (but if that's what you're after, go for it!) Reverb and delay are generally done as send effects anyway, so this is not a huge issue, just an example, as you can build chains on your sends too.

• Along those same lines, if you're using any kind of filter effect with some distortion, take time to consider if you want the distortion to come before the filter (resulting in the filter cleanly filtering the distorted sound) or after (resulting in a dirtier sound with the filter itself being distorted too). Hell, try experimenting with a little of both. Maybe a hard overdrive on a drum track, sent through a filter, followed by some nice, warm tape saturation. Many softsynths, such as Cakewalk's extremely underrated Rapture, let you experiment with different filter and distortion chains and the effect it can have on the timbre of a sound can be significant.

These are just a few examples. I highly recommend wasting an afternoon or two building stupidly long effects chains and seeing how switching the order of the effects changes the end result. Even if you don't learn anything (and you will), it's a lot of fun and that's what it's all about.

Interesting Interview with Greg Milner on NPR

My friend Craig sent me the following link to an interesting interview on NPR I thought some of you might enjoy. Here's what he had to say:

"Greg Milner, Author of the book Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music which is about how sound recording has changed since Edison, and how it has changed the way our ears hear things [ala do half assed recordings effect the way we hear the human voice singing]...and gets into the loss of dynamics in modern popular music [the "loudness wars"] and the over compression of everything.

There is a link to listen to the segment [about 20 minutes] on the page...was very interesting.


Modified Moog Prodigy on Ebay

"The added mods are:

knob for DRONE level, so the VCA will stay on. This makes filtering sounds much better. It can also distort in a very good way if it is turned all the way up when the keyboard is played.
knob for AUDIO INPUT level
jack for AUDIO IN (audio signal to the filter via the mixer)
jack for VCF IN (this is a CV INPUT for the filter)
jack for VCA IN (this is a CV INPUT for the amplifier)
jack for OSC IN (this is a CV INPUT for the oscillators)
jack for KEYBOARD IN/OUT (this can be a CV in or CV OUT)
jack for GATE IN

Info at the listing...

Monday, June 22, 2009

DVD Recommendation - Wesley Willis: Daddy of Rock and Roll

There's a thin line between creativity and madness. In fact, I've often thought there isn't a line at all. I can't think of many creative people I've known, self included, who weren't screwed up in some way. Perhaps creativity is just a way for us all to work out our personal demons in the best way we can. Few of us, however, have had to deal with the types of demons Wesley Willis faced throughout his short life.

A diagnosed schizophrenic, Willis was a giant mountain of a man (6'5" and well over 300 pounds) with a lumbering gait and a permanent callus in the center of his forehead from headbutting people (which he considered a sign of affection). His odd, deliberate manner of speaking and the bizarre nature of a lot of what comes out of his mouth almost make him come across like some tragic Tracy Morgan character. He suffered a difficult childhood, and eventually began hearing voices that he identified as demons called Heartbreaker, Nervewrecker, and Meansucker. In most cases like this, Willis could've easily slipped through the cracks and become just another homeless person ranting at passing cars. But Willis chose to deal with his experiences by creating... first drawings, and later music. I won't try to describe Willis' music to you if you've never heard it. Track some down. I'm not saying you're going to love it, but his music is best experienced firsthand.

This film follows Willis around in his day to day life. Unlike many documentaries, there's no agenda here other than to just document a period of time in Willis' life. Interviews with Willis and his friends illuminate some of his history and background, but for the most part, you just see what his life was like. Some scenes are cringingly funny (particularly the one when he was writing the lyrics for a song called "Suck a Hyaena's Dick" in a Kinkos) others are awkwardly hard to watch as Willis tries to interact with people outside his immediate circle of friends. Let's face it, most people don't know how to respond when a stranger tells them they're buying a book about deer so they can "write beastiality songs to make the demons shut up."

Overall, though, you get a look into an extremely unique artist for whom music was a frayed tether to a reality he didn't live in. You can argue there is little artistic merit to his explicit lyrics or samey Casiotone music, but that isn't the point here. Willis used music to quite literally keep his demons at bay, and regardless of the nature of that music, he managed to make a living and lead a far more normal existence than many with his malady are able to. And he managed to bring a lot of people a lot of happiness in the process. If that isn't a statement about the power of music, I don't know what is.

Yamaha CS-01 on Ebay

It looks like a toy, but the CS-01 is actually a decent, if simple, analog monosynth. You can get some pretty cool bass sounds out of it.

Info at the listing...

Friday, June 19, 2009

I Might Need This

(From a story originally posted on Synthtopia):

I'm a big fan of the films of the Coen Brothers. Granted, they haven't been at the top of their game for many years now, but when they were, they made some of my favorite movies of all time. One of those movies is The Big Lebowski.

Fans of that movie may already recognize the significance of this t-shirt, but if you don't, "Autobahn" was a fictional, Kraftwerk-like band one of the Nihilists was supposed to be in in the 80's. The fact that someone went out of their way to design and print a t-shirt for a fictional band that is only mentioned in passing in a movie makes me very happy.


Roland JX-8P on Ebay

Probably most famous as the source of the cheesy brass lead in Europe's "The Final Countdown"...

Info at the listing...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Making 80's Gated Drum Sounds

There are certain production techniques (some might say "gimmicks"), that put an unmistakable date-of-birth stamp on the music they were used on. And while there is this risk of dating your music when you use gimmicks like this, the good news is, most production trends eventually come back into fashion again at a later date. So it never hurts to bone up on some of these techniques.

One such iconic technique is the so-called "Phil Collins drum sound". It's a fancy way of referring to using gated reverb on drums, and, in fact, is a bit of a misnomer. While it is true that the production technique became known to most people via tracks like "In the Air Tonight" (Phil Collins - ...Hits) on Phil Collins' "Face Value" album, the effect was actually pioneered earlier by producer Hugh Padgham when he was working on the Peter Gabriel track "Intruder" (Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel - Intruder) from Gabriel's third self-titled solo album. Granted, Phil Collins also happened to be the drummer on that track, but it was Padgham who created the effect itself that would go on to become an unmistakable fixture of 80's era drum production. So today, I'll show you how to recreate this type of effect in Logic (although you can follow along with any DAW, reverb, and noise gate).

1. Open up your DAW, and create a software instrument track. Assign this to whatever your favorite drum instrument is. Go ahead and sequence 4 bars of snare backbeats on the 2 and the 4 of each bar.

2. In the INSERTS section on the instrument's mixer channel, open up an instance of SPACE DESIGNER or whatever your reverb of choice is. For purposes of this exercise, we'll use SPACE DESIGNER's default setting, but any hall or more lengthy type of reverb will work.

3. After the instance of SPACE DESIGNER, add the NOISE GATE effect (found in the DYNAMICS sub-folder) as an insert below it. As the name implies, noise gates were originally designed to shut off the noise on a channel when there was no voice or instrument playing on it. Quite literally, it is a "gate" that only lets in the instrument or vocal parts you recorded, and shuts the volume down on the in between periods, thus preventing any noise on that track from contributing to the overall noise level of the song. (This isn't as much of an essential in the digital age since softsynths don't create any noise and most DAWS have some sort of command like Logic's STRIP SILENCE that allow you to cut this out in advance.) Anyway, the most important setting on a NOISE GATE is the threshold, which is the volume level that decides when this virtual gate is open versus when it closes. Padgham discovered that if he put a NOISE GATE after a reverb (usually the opposite was done), he could set the threshold so the reverb's tail got cut off in a pleasantly artificial way that actually added a nice edge of aggression to drum sounds.

4. So let's set up the NOISE GATE to create this effect, shall we? First, go ahead and set the NOISE GATE ATTACK setting to 0 ms. This is a percussive sound, so we want the gate to open immediately when the THRESHOLD level is exceeded.

5. Similarly, we want to turn the HOLD level down to 0 ms. You can tweak this later to adjust the envelope of the gate a bit, but for the most part, we want this to sound abrupt for right now.

6. Set the RELEASE setting to about 55.0 ms. This helps make the cutoff a little less severe, but you may find going all the way down to 0 ms sounds fine depending on how extreme an effect you are after.

7. Next, set the HYSTERESIS setting to -20.0 db. Not all GATE effects have this setting, but it is generally used to make the gating a bit less extreme. We're after the extreme effect, though, so drop that sucka to 0.

8. Finally, we adjust the most important setting, the THRESHOLD. This setting determines the volume level of the signal required to keep the GATE open. Because we want that short, chopped effect, we want a higher setting on the THRESHOLD. Try setting it around -15 db and seeing where that gets you. Again, the correct setting depends on how extreme an effect you are after and what the original signal is like. Tweak it to taste.

Here is an example showing a normal snare with a little ambience first, followed by a gated reverb snare. Back in the day this technique was use on kicks, snares, and toms, but keep in mind, a little goes a long way. It's not an effect you will want to use every day, but when you are after that extra 'oomph' it can really do the trick. (By the way, it can be cool on synths too... artists like Depeche Mode and Wumpscut used this on their earlier material quite a bit!)

Stylophone Studio Black Limited Edition on Ebay

Have you ever said to yourself, "I wish there was an instrument that not only sounded annoying, but also required me to play it with a writing implement"? The infamous Dubreq Stylophone may just be your instrument, then!


Info at the listing...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

X Marks the Spot

In theatre and in films, directors often use bits of criss-crossed duct tape on the floor to indicate a specific location where an actor needs to stand or walk to. It helps create consistency in between shots since scenes are usually made up of several different shots interspliced to look like a single, continuous one.

This can actually be useful when you're recording vocals. When most producers cut a vocal, they edit together a composite 'perfect' take out of the best bits of several different takes. Much like in a film, consistency is key here, as if the tone and volume are inconsistent in between takes, it makes it harder to make these composite bits sound like a convincing, single take. Since the distance you stand from the mic can greatly influence the sound of your vocal recordings, it can be helpful to mark where you're standing while recording so if you need to leave the location to operate the controls of your DAW or fiddle with other settings, you can easily position yourself in the correct location every time you come back and insure a consistent sound between takes when you build your composite.

Cool Music Blog

Adding another name to our blogroll... Play The Records features video and sound clips of cool new music, as well as features on interesting equipment and other audio geekery you all might enjoy...

Music from Outer Space Weird Sound Generator on Ebay

Info at the listing...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Early, Unreleased Live Depeche Mode Track

Look how young Dave looks. Although he's got his pants hiked up like an old man...

Free Trance Sample Pack

Via Synthtopia:


Rare Polyfusion Modular in Moog Format on Ebay

"This is truly a one-of-a-kind item! These are Polyfusion modular synthesizer modules in a Moog format. When Polyfusion started, they made these modules to fit into a Moog modular system before they had developed their own format. These are likely the only modules of this type known to exist!

The modules include:
- Two Variable Formant Filters - each with 3 bands of variable width, frequency, and level for sculpting sounds.

- Dual Ring Modulator for wonderful clangorous sounds.

- Dual Sample & Hold module for wonderful modulations. "

More info at the listing...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Loopmasters Fidget House

Libraries: Loopmasters Fidget House
Format: Download REX/WAV/Apple Loops

Genre: Fidget House, House, Electro

Distributed by:
Price: Download £19.95

Demo: On the
product page

Electronic music tends to evolve so much, that if you blink your eyes, you're likely to have missed the birth of at least 2 or 3 new genres. So it's perhaps not surprising that I wasn't sure what this library would hold given that 'Fidget House' was not a genre I had come across before. Turns out, Fidget House is a mixture of house music with some of the warped basslines and bleepy synths that characterize electro-house, and a healthy dose of hyper-edited vocal and effects samples. (Check out artists like Switch & Hervé to hear it for yourself.)

So with that out of the way, let's delve in and see what's on offer. Like most Loopmasters titles, Fidget House consists of both loops and one-shot samples (nearly 600 samples in total). The loops section is further subdivided into Bass Loops, Breaks Fill Glitches, Full Loops, Music Loops, the Blips, the Creeps, Top Loops, and Twisteed Vocal Loops. The one shots are divided up by Drums (Crashes, Hats, Kicks, Perc, Snares), Stabs, Sweeps, and Vox Stabs.

Things start out with a healthy selection of Bass Loops. Expect abundant use of side chain pumping, bit crushing, and lots of glide. All the basslines sound extremely contemporary and have a good mix of groove and hookiness to them. The names of the loops include the root note of the bassline, and in instances where there is a progression, the root notes of each part of the progression. This makes it quick and easy to locate a loop that will fit into an existing arrangement or to find compatible loops in this, or another sample collection.

Next up are the Breaks Fills and Glitches, which is pretty much what the name suggests. 21 loops that can be used to add glitchy touches or transitions to a mix as fills, or simply as fringier elements to layer with a main drum loop.

This is followed by Filtered Loops Section which features more involved loops, most of them marrying light drum or percussion grooves with heavily edited and filtered disco and vocal samples. While this section concentrates mainly on vaguely melodic elements, the Full Loops section is strictly made up of drum loops. Most have a nice, stompy house feel with plenty of funky swing, and occasionally glitchy flourishes. My only complaint is that there are only about two dozen loops in this section. Sure, it's better to program your own, but it's something that potential customers should be aware of in case they are mainly interested in drum loops.

The Music Loops section is next and covers much of the same territory as in the Bass Loops section, but concentrating on leads and higher melodic lines. Everything is perfectly produced and absolutely up-to-the-minute stylewise. Really, these loops would probably be useful to producers and remixes for any dance-oriented genre given how much many current styles cross over one another. Electro house musicians in particular might dig these.

The enigmatically-named The Blips and The Creeps sections consist of sparse loops, some melodic, some not to add some extra spice to the mix. Bleepy, 8-bit synths, delayed rhythm lines, ghostly tones, and other snippets of audio weirdness are here for the taking to add a little spice and mood to your arrangements.

The woefully-brief Top Loops section is made up mostly of hihats/shaker/tambourine loops, usually mixed in with a snare or other percussion that has been hipass filtered. These types of loops are really useful for adding some groove and feel to your existing drum arrangements, which is why it's a shame there's only a dozen of them here.

The loops section rounds out with a small selection of Twisted Vocal Loops. As you might expect, these are based on vocal samples that have been chopped up, gated, and edited into oblivion (although in a rhythmically driving way). There's a really nice grit to these that take them to a higher level of sonic interest than there would've been had they just been presented with pristine clarity. Lots of attitude and beautiful dirt!

On to the one-shot samples, then... Note that all the one-shots come available both as WAV files and in the most popular software sampler formats including EXS24, Halion, Kontakt, NNXT, and SFZ. Things start of with a selection of electronic drums divide into folders for crashes, hihats, kicks, snares, and percussion. All but the Crashes section consist of a decent number of samples to choose from. This is by no means going to replace a dedicated drum sample library, but I honestly don't know anyone who couldn't use more drum sounds, and these are all very nicely done. The kicks have the authoritative thud that is fashionable these says, the hats sizzle, the percussion mixes vintage and contemporary electronic thwips, zaps, and doonts, and the snares are some of the more unusual and creative ones I've heard in any sample library. Good stuff.

But man cannot live on drums alone, so we move on to the Stabs folder comprised of just under 50 stab sounds ranging from aliasing brass hits, choppy digitally distorted notes, and lofi synth tones. All include the rootnote in the file name, and most are useful across enough of a range to do full riffs and progressions with. There are a few sounds with delays or repeated elements that will be out of time when transposed, but these sounds are in the minority.

The Sweeps section is a little under two dozen noise and synth FX sweeps pefect for transitions, intros, and breakdowns. Not much to say here except the sounds are good.

Rounding things out are just over two dozen Vox Stab samples to create your own hyper-edited riffs and rhythms with. The processing and quality is consitant with the rest of the library and consists of relatively short vocal samples that have been digitally crushed, comb-filtered, and otherwise abused for a very current feel.

Whether or not you've ever heard of Fidget House in your life before, if you do any sort of club-oriented music or remixing, you'll probably find something useful in this collection. As with all Loopmasters titles, the production and sound quality is fantastic and the loops actually sounds like something you might actually want to use in your tunes, and not like a bunch of hashed-together throwaways like many loop collections. As I mentioned before, the loops here are primarily melodic, so if you're mainly after drum loops, you might want to look elsewhere. I would've liked to have more of everything, but it's important to realize this is a low-priced sample library and offers a very good value of the price. My only other wish would've been for some one-shot bass sounds, as that seems to be the only category missing from the one-shots for those who prefer not to rely on pre-programmed basslines. All in all, though, another terrific collection from Loopmasters. (9/10)

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Improving Your Vocals

Earlier this week, a reader wrote me and asked for some tips on getting better vocal recordings, especially in a home studio. As luck would turn out, I had already written up an article on that very topic for the tech/studio section of my website. It struck me that this might be useful to some of the readers here, so here it is...

One of the more frequent technically-oriented e-mail questions I get has to do with how to get vocals to sound better. This can definitely be one of the more difficult parts of the recording process for most electronic musicians, so below, I've tried to compile some tips I use in my own work that will hopefully be of some use to the up-and-coming musicians out there. (Or at least the ones that can read - I guess that leaves out the drummers - ZING!)

1. Garbage In, Garbage Out

Let's start with the harsh truth first. The reason your vocals sound like shit could just be because you are a shitty vocalist. Don't panic. Everyone sucks when they first start. Some of us still suck even after years of experience. Keep at it. Keep singing, keep pushing yourself to expand your abilities. You might even consider taking formal training. But remember that what makes a great vocal generally is not technical perfection, but the emotion - the feel, even the timbre of the voice. Think of Ian Curtis from Joy Division. The guy couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but his stark, paranoid vocals were the perfect compliment to the bleak world his lyrics painted. Don't sweat whether or not you hit a note perfectly. Focus on the performance and expressing emotion. The technical ability will come after time.

2. Make the Studio Comfortable

Recording vocals in a studio is an extremely unnatural situation for most singers - especially inexperienced ones. But regardless of the level of experience, the mere pressure of recording and trying to nail a perfect take may cause even normally great singers to choke up and give a bad performance.

A lot of the things that can lead to bad performances can be easily remedied, though. Whether you are recording yourself, or another singer, it pays to make your recording environment as comfortable and "homey" as possible. Something as small as dimming the lighting or lighting incense or candles can sometimes put a singer at ease and result in a much more confident and natural-sounding performance. Don't worry if your particular preference seems silly. If it makes you comfortable and results in a great performance, who the hell cares? What happens in the studio, stays in the studio. No one needs to know you recorded that great vocal while wearing a pair of SCUBA flippers and bunny ears. But if you do something freaky with a goat, people are definitely going to talk, let's be honest.

3. The Recording Environment

As important as the comfort level is in getting a great vocal recording, the noise level in your recording environment is probably even more important. Humans tend to "tune out" the background sounds in our daily environments, but microphones are not as forgiving. If your computer fan is loud... if traffic sounds leak in through your windows... if there is a TV on in the next room... if your air conditioning or heating vents are on... if your neighbors are having noisy sex in the next apartment - it is going to end up in your recording. A little of this is inevitable in a home studio, but there is a lot you can do to minimize these interferences.

You don't have to have a totally pristine vocal recording to get good results, as a lot of low-level sounds will end up being masked by the louder volume of the music (although compression may make them louder), but why not start with the cleanest recording you can? If your computer CPU or fan is too noisy, consider moving it into another room when you record. Try to record vocals at a time when there is less likely to be anyone watching TV in the next room or when rush hour traffic turns the street in front of your house into a mangled mass of dissonant horn-honking.

Keep in mind that the natural echo of the room you are in may also effect the quality of a vocal recording. Ideally, you want to record in an environment as sonically 'dead' as possible - which is to say, in a room with as little natural reverb/reflection as possible. This is always going to exist to a degree, but doing simple things such as putting thick carpeting on the floor or hanging quilts in front of, and in back of yourself when recording can do a lot to deaden those pesky reflections and give you a much cleaner slate to begin with. Of course, if you have the budget, you can purchase sound-deadening foam, but a couple well-placed quilts work just as well despite looking lame. (-50 rock n' roll points.)

4. Take Care of Your Voice

This might seem like a no-brainer, but few beginning vocalists really think about it. If you are going to record, you want your voice to be in the best possible shape it can be. You should avoid drinking anything except for water. Drinks alone can really wreak havoc on your voice if you aren't careful. For instance, milk has a tendency to "gum up" your vocal cords... the carbonation in soda can disturb your vocal cords... the acidity in many fruit juices can stimulate production of mucus/phlegm... and alcohol and cigarettes can REALLY mess up your voice (unless you are going for a Tom Waits sort of thing, in which case, knock yourself out!) Keep in mind that you will likely be singing the track several times, so the less you do to mess with your vocal cords, the better your endurance is likely to be.

5. Rehearse and Warm Up

Which brings me to the next point. Much as an athlete doesn't run out onto the field to compete without first stretching and warming up, a singer shouldn't try and record a vocal without doing the same for their voice. For warming up, singing musical scales is probably the best thing you can do, but I find just singing the song itself several times usually does the trick nicely. But before you even get to recording, be sure to rehearse the song as much as you are able to. Especially if you plan to layer your vocals, you want to be sure you know the timing of the song inside and out and can give a consistent performance.

6. Mic Setup and Technique

It goes without saying that a good mic is also a must for getting a decent vocal recording. (Ideally buy a decent condenser mic if you can afford it, but otherwise a Shure SM-57/58, which are probably the best dynamic mics you can buy for most practical purposes). Once you have the mic, however, it is also important to know how to set it up. You will want to have a mic stand for sure. Although it may feel more natural to just hold the mic, even small things like changing your grip on the mic can produce thumps and "body noise" that will ruin your recording.

A pop filter is also a must (these are cheap, but in a pinch, you can stretch some pantihose over a wire hanger). Make sure the mic is facing in the right direction (unless it is an omnidirectional mic), and adjust the mic stand so the mic's pickup pattern is around the height of the vocalist's mouth. For most general vocal purposes, the vocalist should stand about 6"-12" from the mic. However, special effects can be produced by singing very close to the mic if you are going for the Barry White sound.

The final thing to consider is what is called "mic technique". If you watch one of those wailing diva type singers like Mariah Carey doing their thing, you'll notice that they adjust the distance between the mic and their mouth according to how loud they are singing. When they belt out the really high notes (which are generally louder), they pull the mic away from their mouth a bit. This keeps the volume of their voice a bit more consistent. When recording vocals, you should be mindful of this sort of thing. If you are singing a passage that is louder than others, step back a little from the mic. While it is true that you can even out dynamic differences with a compressor, you will have a much easier time of it if you even them out just a bit in your performance, especially if you tend to go from a whisper to a scream. Great. Now I have that Icicle Works song stuck in my head.

7. Recording

So now you're ready to actually record. Let's get this out of the way. You are going to screw up. Probably a lot. Don't sweat it. This happens even with seasoned professionals. You're a human being (and if you're not, let me be the first to welcome our new singing robot overlords...), and that means you make mistakes. When this happens, don't let it throw you. No matter how badly you screw up, don't stop recording and try to recover and keep singing as soon as you are able. If you are recording another vocalist, resist the temptation to tease them or laugh at their mistakes, no matter how goofy, as this will only throw them off their game and make for an uncomfortable recording environment. So keep it going. Even a take with a bad screw-up in might have a totally brilliant verse or chorus later on that you are never able to top. Which brings me to the next thing - keep ALL of your takes. Even the ones with the off-key notes, coughs, and nervous farting. When you get to the next stage, you will be glad to have as many takes as possible to choose from. I generally record 3 good takes for a song, but how many you take depends on your preference and if you want to layer your vocals or not. If you think you can make it sound even better by doing just one more take, then do it!

8. Compositing

So by now, you've probably noticed that it's a lot harder to get a take that is perfect from start to finish than you thought it would be. On one take, you may have nailed the first verse, but you messed up the lyrics on the chorus. Another take might have a perfect first half of the chorus, and yet another might have a perfect take of the last half of the chorus. Wouldn't it be great if we could build a perfect vocal track by cutting and pasting these individual parts together? That's what compositing is. (Click here for an article on compositing in Logic I posted earlier...)

And before the purists start complaining that this is cheating somehow... SHUT YOUR DAMN PIEHOLES! This is and has been a regular part of recording for decades. Any modern professional recording you hear is almost certainly guaranteed to have a composited vocal (or a composited guitar solo, etc.). In the old days, this had to be done by cutting up the tape and re-assembling it. Fortunately, with the advent of computer recording, this is a much less painful process now. Compositing can be as complicated as you want to be. If you want to find the best takes of not just verses, or individual lines, but WORDS, you can do that. Many professional recordings even get down to the syllable level. This can be arduous work, but the efforts can be well worth it.

9. Effects

Vocal effects could well be the subject of an article all by itself. Since the types of effects being used is largely a matter of taste and genre, I'm not going to detail every possible effect you might want to use on your voice. Instead, I will concentrate on the basics that almost all vocal tracks use and you can move on from there.

• Compression. Compression is one of the most useful and hardest to understand effects, if only because to untrained ears, it can be difficult to hear what the effect does. Indeed, if you set a compressor up correctly, its effect SHOULDN'T be obvious. A compressor's job is to even out the dynamic changes in an instrument or voice. You can imagine it as a little man with his hand on the volume knob that alters the volume so soft parts and loud parts are closer to the same volume level. This is especially important for vocals, as most singers don't have perfect dynamic control. A more dynamically even vocal will also sit in the mix better.

• Equalization. Equalization (or "EQ" as it is more commonly known) is the process of increasing or decreasing the volume of different frequencies in a signal. You know the "bass" and "treble" controls on your car stereo? That is a very basic form of EQ. I generally put EQ in my vocal effects chain in two places. First, I put it before the compressor. I use this EQ to filter out the really low frequencies (say, below 140hZ or so). The reason I do this is that you don't usually need those frequencies in a vocal, and those frequencies can effect how precisely the compressor can work. (Not to mention muddying up the low-end of your mix!) I also put an EQ after the compressor. This instance is used to do the actual "sculpting" of the sound. The key here is subtlety. I usually add a small boost (1-2 db) in the 1.5k range (this increases the intelligibility of the vocal and helps it sit in the mix better) and that's about it. For backing vocals, you might want to cut out even more low frequencies and maybe give a boost in the upper ranges to lighten and brighten them up.

The key with EQ is to always try cutting before boosting. If you want the vocal to sound brighter, try cutting some of the low frequencies. Unless you have a very muffled recording, this has the same psycho-acoustic effect as a boost in the high frequencies, but it does it without hogging bandwidth in your mix, so your mix will end up much cleaner.

• Reverb.
Reverb is the simulation of the natural reflections that exist in the real world when a sound is produced in an environment. For instance, if you are in a huge church and clap your hands, the sound doesn't abruptly stop, but trails off and slowly decays. Even though modern mixing styles are much drier (ie less heavy on the effects) than in the past, even a recording that sounds dry probably has some slight ambience on it. A vocal without any reverb on it will sound unnatural, and most likely, unprofessional.

That said, the key with reverb is to use it in moderation. Nothing makes a home recording sound more like a home recording that over-use of reverb. It is also important to use reverb on vocals as a "send" effect. Effects like EQ and Compression are known as "insert'" effects. This means that the entire signal is effected. With effects like reverb and delay, however, you want to set them up as send effects. This basically entails sending the signal to another mixing channel (usually a dedicated effects return), and then using a dial on your mixer to select the amount of the reverbed or delayed signal that is mixed with the dry, uneffected signal. 15-20% is probably a good starting point for your send level with a reverb effect. Check your manual on how to set up effects sends in whatever program you are working on. You didn't think I was going to tell you EVERYTHING, right?

• Delay. A delay is a timed repeat of a sound. or echo. If you shout into a canyon and hear whatever you shouted repeated back to you after a short time, that is delay. Delay can also add "space" to your vocal and can add some nice rhythmic complexity. Again, moderation is key. Set it up as a send effect, and find a percentage of wet/dry mix that lets you hear the delays without being obnoxiously loud.

10. In the Mix

So you've recorded, composited, and effected your vocals. Congratulations! You only have one more step to worry about! Getting a vocal to sit properly in the mix can be a rather time-consuming step, however. The biggest mistake most beginning vocalists make is to make the vocal too quiet in the mix. This can be partly out of self-consciousness, but also, after all the previous steps, you are probably intimately familiar with the vocal. Thus, the lyrics may be totally intelligible to YOU, when they are difficult, if not impossible for someone else to hear clearly. The advice I give to beginning vocalist about mixing their vocals is to find the level they feel is just about right, then boost the level by about 2db. It's by no means a perfect method, but it will probably get you closer to where the vocal really needs to be. Of course, as your experience with mixing increases, you won't have to rely on this technique because you'll have a better feel for how loud the vocals should be. Sometimes the vocal level will mostly be right, but some passages don't cut through as they should. As mentioned before, a slight boost to your midrange EQ (around 1.5k or so) might do just the trick. If that doesn't make the crucial difference, you may need to compress the vocals more. Be careful, as it is easy to overdo it, but it could simply be that the dynamic levels are still too varied. Finally, if there are still sections where the vocal doesn't cut through (for example, perhaps the vocal level is fine during the verses, but during your chorus where the arrangement is more dense, it gets lost.), try using the automation features of your DAW program (pretty much all of them have automation these days), and have it boost the vocal by a db or two during the crucial moments.

If you've made it this far, I hope you've found that these tips have helped to polish your vocal tracks to a higher level of professionalism than you had attained before. This tutorial is clearly very basic and is not meant to be the end-all be-all instruction on vocal production. Look at it as a starting point and search the web and your favorite music magazines for more tips and constantly seek to expand your knowledge of production techniques. Most of all, don't be afraid to experiment. Most anything you do with computer recording these days is completely non-destructive, and so long as you've saved copies of your work, you can always go back to the original if you completely mess up your pristine vocal track.