Author Archives: JP

Create Your Own Natural Drum Samples – It’s Fun and Easy!

Drums are probably the most sought after sounds in electronic music. Everyone wants the punchiest and coolest sounding drums to use in their productions. Instead of using the same drums everyone else is using, you can create your own natural drum samples instead – and stand out from the pack. It’s not as hard as it sounds either, so listen up!

What You Need

You need a microphone to capture your drum hits. Photo Credit: Leandro Arndt via Compfight cc

You need a microphone to capture your drum hits. Photo Credit: Leandro Arndt via Compfight cc

Basically, the only things you need are a microphone, an audio interface to record sound through and a DAW software to record into. That’s it. You might also want to have yourself available as the drummer.

As for microphones, pretty much any microphone will work: a vocal mic, a dynamic microphone or small/large diaphragm condenser microphones. Condensers are especially nice for capturing all kinds of drum sounds from huge lows to sizzling highs.

Sound-wise, you could record anything and everything. You don’t need a real drum kit either. You just need things that make a sound. These could include metals such as silverware and tools, pieces of wood, a salt shaker, groceries, your hands for snaps and claps, etc.

Create instruments from familiar, everyday things!

Anything you can find that you think would make a cool sound is fine. If you have access to real drums, that’s a bonus, as it could be hard to get a true snare sound elsewhere for example (though I have successfully created a badass snare from a half-full water bottle, and shaking the bottle in various ways to make the water slam against the “walls” of the bottle, so use your imagination).

The Process

Hand claps are the shortest way to personal drums. Layer them together for a massive sound! Photo Credit: chrisjohnbeckett via Compfight cc

Hand claps are the shortest way to personal drums. Layer them together for a massive sound! Photo Credit: chrisjohnbeckett via Compfight cc

Let’s say you are working on a track that has a specific tempo. You could then set up a click track to aid you with recording drum hits straight on the grid, if you don’t have some kind of beat going already.

After all is set, it’s go time. Just set the gain from your microphone preamp to a comfortable level (peaking at -6dB max), arm the necessary track for recording and press record!

Think about all your drum and percussion sounds you have gathered as instruments, and play them while recording, and you’ll get a musical result.

When you are done recording, you should have a bunch of sounds and hits available to you and ready to be chopped up, re-arranged and layered.

Now remember when I told you to establish a click track so all your hits would fit the tempo? It will ease your workflow exponentially when you advance to the phase of cutting the audio, arranging it to other parts of your song and layering drum hits with each other, as they’ll all fall to grid beautifully.

You could use an automatic transient detection tool such as Beat Detective in Pro Tools that automatically finds the first transient of all drum hits in the selected region and chops them up automatically. This is especially handy if you want to bounce your freshly-made drum sounds as individual audio hits for your personal drum library.

At this point, you could take it a step further and pull your fresh samples into a sampler, such as Native Instruments Kontakt, for further mangling and processing, and affecting the pitch, the ADSR envelope, velocity and other functions in it.

To put the cherry on top of the cake, you could insert a tape machine plug on your sounds to make them really pop out, adjust EQ and compression, apply stereo effects and polish them further in any way you want.

Use tape machines such as SoundToys Decapitator to finalize your recordings.

Use tape machines such as SoundToys Decapitator to finalize your recordings.

You Have The Edge

Creative drum recording is too much fun - and this baby knows it. Photo Credit: yukatafish via Compfight cc

Creative drum recording is too much fun – and this baby knows it. Photo Credit: yukatafish via Compfight cc

When building your own personal drum library, one thing is for certain – nobody in this world possesses the sounds you have. Nobody. Think about that. Your sound will become truly unique when you create your own drums.

While there’s nothing wrong in using the sample packs that everyone else (unfortunately) is using, making your own sounds WILL bring you an edge. I strongly recommend at least giving it a shot, as I personally find the whole process too much fun, and genuinely inspiring.

Nothing beats the feeling of satisfaction in creating totally killer hi-hats or claps sounding cleaner and better than anything else out there.

I hope I have injected a bit of inspiration into you and set you on your path in creating your own drum samples, as it sure does inspire me, every time.

-JP

What do you think about creating your own drum samples? Do you think it sounds challenging, or easy? Do you use third party sample packs in your music? Discuss below and I’ll join in!

In Search of the Best Small Studio Monitors – Get the Most Out of Your Monitoring

Studio monitors are no doubt the heart of every studio, big or small, because aside from your own ears, they are the most important tools to use. It is crucial to find the correct kind of monitoring system for your studio, depending on your room size, technical requirements and personal preference. Read on to learn about important aspects of monitoring and tips for finding the best small studio monitors for you.

The Room

 

Room size is important when choosing a studio monitor. Photo Credit: MattLaws via Compfight cc

Room size is important when choosing a studio monitor. Photo Credit: MattLaws via Compfight cc

When purchasing studio monitors, you should think about what size your studio room will be like. For small rooms and bedrooms, a studio monitor with 5-6” woofer element will be enough for bass reproduction. 7-8” woofers are great for a little bit bigger rooms.

If a studio monitor with a large bass woofer is fitted into a very small room, it could introduce too much bass, which makes mixing decisions harder.
When choosing a room, the first thing should of course be to choose the most acoustically pleasing room. This is of course not always possible, and most rooms will always have at least some acoustic faults.

Lots of active studio monitors have switches behind them to adapt the monitor to the listening environment, and you should look for a monitor that has these room-treatment EQ’s in the back.
Ideally, you would want to take care of room problems with real acoustic treatment, such as placing bass traps in the corners and walls, but that is a topic for another day.

Monitors, I need you to be able to…

 

Think about what you need the monitors for. Photo Credit: wgossett via Compfight cc

Think about what you need the monitors for. Photo Credit: wgossett via Compfight cc

You need to think what you are going to do with the monitors. Are you going to produce music, mix it, or both? Or are you going to be listening to music mostly?
One of the important things to think about is how wide the bass response is in a monitor, and how far you need it to be able to reach.

Do you need to hear the 30 hertz range and make critical musical and mixing decisions that low? If you do, you should look for a monitor that is able to go down that low. Or pair your monitoring with a subwoofer, as they will get you to 20Hz. Usually, most active studio monitors go down to the 40-55Hz range.

For contrast, my trusted Neumann KH120 studio monitors go down to 52 Hz, and I make perfectly bass-rich music with them, with more punch that I could desire.

The midrange is another important factor to think about. Some monitors have a clear, “dissecting” midrange, while others have a muddier and “glued” midrange. In mixing, a transparent midrange is generally preferred, but good mixes are made with speakers with more duller and “vibier” midrange.

Lastly, the high end. Do you need the highs to be crystal clear or a bit toned-down? Do you want to be in total control of the upper “air” in sound, or are you fine with speakers that represent the high end of most commercial sound sources (such as laptop speakers, earbuds, tablets) clearly?

Generally, for solely music production, speakers don’t necessarily need to represent all frequencies with highest fidelity and transparency. I know of people who make music at home using domestic hi-fi speakers and mix it down later in a studio environment. But if you are mixing your own music with the same speakers you produce, you should be looking for a monitor that has an even representation of the whole frequency spectrum.

In the end, the decision of studio monitors largely comes down to personal preference.

Personalizing the hearing experience

 

Monitors are a very personal choice. Photo Credit: dominik18s via Compfight cc

Monitors are a very personal choice. Photo Credit: dominik18s via Compfight cc

Personally, I prefer very transparent monitors that don’t color the sound in any way. I like to hear everything as it comes from the sound source, the monitor acting as a vessel. Though, people I know use very different monitoring than I, which noticeably colors the sound as I wouldn’t necessarily prefer it to.

But it’s a personal choice!

Some people like a pristine high end, some prefer a gigantic bass punch. Different people like different things. Listen to a lot of different monitors if you have the chance prior to purchase. If not, at least research the likes that you think you would prefer.

What you prefer is key. You don’t need to like what others like. If you dig the sound and vibe of a certain monitor, go for it, and you’ll most certainly make awesome music with them. The speakers need to inspire you.

Get the most out of your speakers

There are some things everyone can do to enhance their monitoring experience:

  • Speaker Stands

Speaker stands are great for monitor placement, and getting them off any surface that could cause unpleasant resonances, such as tables and shelves. You’ll get more room on your desk for moving the speakers away from it. Stands also guarantee a better sound. Heck, you could even fill them with sand to provide additional acoustic isolation.

  • Isolation Pads

Little foam pads such as Auralex MoPads serve a great function if your monitors are on your desk, or any other surface, because they isolate your monitors from whatever they are placed on. This results in better overall sound and tighter bass response. The difference is impressive.

  • Speaker Placement

Speaker placement is very important to achieve the right stereo image and sound stage. Ideally, the monitors should set in an equilateral triangle from your listening position – your ears. If your monitors are an X amount of distance apart from each other, that same X should be the distance of each monitor to your ears, therefore forming a perfect triangle. As for speaker height, as a general rule of thumb the space between the woofer and tweeter should be at ear level.

Two monitors and the listening position should form an equilateral triangle. Photo Credit: Julia Manzerova via Compfight cc

Two monitors and the listening position should form an equilateral triangle. Photo Credit: Julia Manzerova via Compfight cc

Last but not least…

Learn your room and your monitors. This is the culmination of everything. If you know your sound, you’ll have no problems whatsoever. The sound will “grow” in you within time, and eventually you’ll produce and mix killer sounding music in your room.

Learning your sound environment can take weeks, months and even years easily. Be patient, and commit to one studio space for a long time, if you are able. If you need to move around, give the new environment time and listen to your favorite music for your ears to become accustomed to it.

To conclude

Do research and do listen to different monitors before you buy, and you won’t be disappointed. If you already have purchased a set of monitors, look for options to improve the experience.

Don’t forget about your ears. At the end of the day, they are all that matter.

-JP

Are you looking to purchase a pair of monitors / do you already have a pair? What are your experiences in studio monitors and environments? Go ahead and leave a comment below and I’ll make sure to get back to you.

How to Master a Song In Pro Tools – Part 3 of 3

In the final part of How to Master a Song In Pro Tools, we will be adding final polishing to our master as well as a mastering limiter.

Get Vitalized

Our master already sounds great after all the EQ and compression. What I want to do at this point is to add a little bit of stereo width to make the track sound wider and livelier. I’m going to use a dedicated enhancer or exciter plugin developed exactly for this task, the SPL Vitalizer MK2-T.

SPL Vitalizer MK 2-T

SPL Vitalizer MK2-T

I insert the Vitalizer into my mastering chain, and reach for the stereo expander knob immediately. Just like during any other task in mastering, less is more. Don’t be drawn into the “instant maximization” effect provided by the knob. Be gentle.

Slight stereo expansion

Slight stereo expansion

I find a value just below 4 is more than enough to “stereoize” our track. If I go past the value I set, the stereo effect gets too overwhelming, crowding the whole master with stereo information. Once again, it might sound nice, but don’t go overboard!

I don’t touch the other knobs in the Vitalizer, as I only wanted some stereo excitement out of it.

Make it a record

The final stage of mastering is applying the mastering limiter at the end of the chain. The limiter is used to inject final volume into the track and apply a ceiling for peaks which sound will never pass.

I will be using Slate Digital’s great FG-X mastering processor.
The FG-X basically has a compressor and a level section in one, but I will be disabling the compressor since we already applied compression, and just use the level section instead.

Slate Digital FG-X

Slate Digital FG-X

Calibrating the VU meters to -10 RMS, from the "Settings" menu

Calibrating the VU meters to -10 RMS, from the “Settings” menu

The first thing I am going to do, is calibrate the VU meters on the bottom right, to respond to the RMS (the average level) I aim for in my master. I’m going to click “Settings” and set the reference RMS level to -10RMS, which is a very healthy average level of loudness, but still loud in today’s standards.

The meters are now set and we’re ready to go. I click “Constant Gain Monitoring” button so the gain I apply into the limiter will not affect my output volume. In other words, I can compare the processed and unprocessed versions easily by clicking the “Power” button on the FG-Level. The goal here is to get a loud sounding track without it becoming distorted or crushed.

Transient enhancement

Transient enhancement

I start raising the gain to reach my goal of -10RMS on the meters. When close to it, I use the “Dynamic Perception” knob, which enhances the perceived loudness of the track to bring up more perceived level, and enhance some transients using the transient knobs to taste.

Dynamic Perception knob

Dynamic Perception knob

After these treatments, I adjust the gain once again to reach -10RMS, which will be my final average level of the master. Lastly, I adjust the ceiling to -0.2 on the peak scale and make sure dithering is on for exporting the master to CD-quality 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV-file. Also, I disable the “Constant Gain Monitoring” function before exporting.

Raising gain to -10RMS. After calibrating the VU meters, the needle has hit 0 which equals to -10RMS.

Raising gain to -10RMS. After calibrating the VU meters, the needle has hit 0 which equals to -10RMS.

Dither and ceiling

Dither and ceiling

After the finalizing tasks with the Slate Digital FG-X, my master is finally sounding like a finished record, ready to go. All I need to do now is bounce the finished master to disk with the right settings, making sure I have chosen the right bit depth and sample rate for the bounce.

Mastering Chain

Final Mastering Chain

Bouncing the file

Bouncing the file

Bounce settings

Bounce settings

I hope you have learned a lot for your mastering endeavors from this series of articles. The tools I chose to use are just a few among an ocean of plugins. So feel free to use the EQs, compressors, enhancers and limiters you have in your possession, and the tools you are comfortable with. The principles are universally the same.

If you have any questions about mastering, comments or feedback, please leave them below and I’ll get back to you.

Happy mastering!

-JP

How to Master a Song In Pro Tools – Part 2 of 3

In part two of How to Master a Song In Pro Tools, we will add some character to our track using analog-style EQ and compression.

Analog vibes

My EQ of choice is SPL Passeq, which walks in the footsteps of the famous Pulteq EQ from the 50’s, but has a modern sound to it. It’s great for adding some sweet tone-shaping and character to our music. Let’s begin.

SPL Passeq

SPL Passeq

 

While the song at this point sound good, it’s a bit clinical and flat. The track definitely needs some fat low end to it. I find 80Hz adds a nice punch to the low end.

Low boost

Low 80Hz boost

Giving it a 0.3dB boost, the track warms up a lot. Even the high end becomes sweeter and less harsh because EQ decisions always affect the opposite end of the spectrum as well.

Next I head for the middle frequencies. By sweeping the mid band around, I find a nice frequency of 3300Hz, which gives my track a nice, radio-like quality when boosted. I boost around 0.5dB in this frequency. The slight dullness of the sound is gone because of the boost, and the high mids gained a slight glow instead.

3-lmfboost

3.3kHz boost

I cranked the volume on my speakers to listen to how the song sounds, and I thought there was still just a little bit of “coldness” left somewhere in the mid frequencies. So I take the middle cut band and sweep around. I found that 1000Hz, just like earlier, had the coldness in it. I create a cut of 0.3dB, and the overall sound becomes much better.

1000Hz cut

1000Hz cut

Lastly, I want to add some high end using the high boost filter.

17kHz is where the “air” seems to lie in this track, bringing the vocal, high hats and snare more clarity. The boost is about 0.8dB, which is enough.

High end boost

High end boost

I volume-match the EQ to the original version by using the large output knob in the middle, and constantly bypassing to spot the difference. What I notice is, the low end became a little smaller after all the other EQ adjustments I did. By increasing the low end boost by one step or tick, it’s back where it should be and the track now sounds great.

Output gain to match unprocessed version

Output gain to match unprocessed version

All the EQing is now done, and by doing comparisons between the original and the EQ’d version, I very much prefer the track processed with the SPL Passeq. The low end kept its original punch but added a bit of warmth and weight, and the whole track sounds larger because of it. The separation between the low end and the high end is better because of the boosts in the high end and the slight dip in the 1kHz range.

The track now has a tone I like and sounds more professional and “radio ready”. The spectral work is done. The next step is to control the dynamics and enhance the groove using a compressor.

Final settings on the Passeq

Final settings on the Passeq


 

Finding the right punch

My mastering compressor for the application is Vertigo VSC-2 by brainworx. It is a VCA compressor, as I tend to prefer VCA-style compressors with their snappy, fast, clean, “rock n roll” sound.

Vertigo VSC-2 compressor

Vertigo VSC-2 compressor

I pull down the threshold so the compressor starts working, and set the ratio to 2:1. For mastering duties, you don’t generally want to go over 2:1 because that could result in a sound that’s too aggressive. Remember, we are being subtle here.

Ratio, attack and release

Ratio, attack and release

I set the attack to 30ms, to let transients trough and not let them be squashed by the compressor – want them to be enhanced by it. The key here is to find the right release value, which works as a rhythmic groove control. It’s unique to each track when mastering. For this piece of music, 0.1s is the right value as it is the only setting to affect the drums the way I want it to, especially the snare. With any other setting, the compressor doesn’t “grab” the snare in the punchy way I want it to. So listen and find the right release value for your track by listening to its groove and how the compressor affects the drums.

Side chain filter at 60Hz

Side chain filter at 60Hz

I enable the side chain filter for 60Hz so the compressor doesn’t affect any frequencies below it. I don’t want the compressor to react to the sub-bass under that frequency, because it only causes unwanted pumping for the compressor.

Okay, now it’s time to find the sweet spot by using the threshold and aim for 0.5-2dB of gain reduction by using the meters. Be very careful here, as this could potentially ruin everything you’ve done so far – if you do too much. My sweet spot seems to lie just below the 1dB mark on the meter, by carefully listening while adjusting the threshold. Any more, and the compressor would be working too much.

Sweet spot just below 1dB of gain reduction

Sweet spot just below 1dB of gain reduction

What the Vertigo VSC-2 did, it added a cohesion by enhancing the dynamics in a very pleasant way. The kick and snare punch harder, but not any louder on the peak scale! Instruments also gained separation and authority. All this from a meticulously set up compressor with a maximum of 1dB gain reduction.

Here are my final settings for the compressor:

Final settings for the VSC-2

Final settings for the VSC-2

At this point, the master already sounds very good. It doesn’t sound drastically different from the original, but it feels more polished and has that professional sound people are after.

In the next and final part, I will be adding an exciter to control the stereo width and enhance some frequencies if needed, and finally, adding a mastering limiter to control final volume and loudness of the track, ready for distribution.

-JP

CONCLUDED IN PART 3

How to Master a Song In Pro Tools – Part 1 of 3

Mastering

Mastering engineer at work

Mastering is like the secret practice of audio engineering. How the professionals do it in their million dollar mastering facilities is not talked about much. I’m going to reveal a few pointers on the philosophy of mastering and lastly – how to master a song in Pro Tools, or any other DAW you might be using.

First things first

Before you start mastering anything, you need to set yourself in a new state of mind. If you don’t, dare I say, I guarantee you will ruin your preciously put together mix. You need to think as the actual mix as the final “master” already. All that’s needed in mastering is very subtle polishing, and the less you have to do, the better.

So cut off that emotional bond you have for your song when you enter the mastering stage, and be objective. Just like the professionals. Here are a few things you need to be aware of:

  1. The MIX must shine

    The mix should already be like a diamond, the job of mastering is only to clean it and make it sparkle

    The mix should already be like a diamond, the job of mastering is only to clean it and make it sparkle

If the mix doesn’t already sound like the final record, you need to stop right now and back up. Don’t be fooled that “mastering will fix it”. Because it won’t. A

reliable mastering engineer would probably tell you the same thing, to go fix it in the mix and then send it again for mastering.

If the mix isn’t good, mastering will be encumbering and the end result unsatisfactory. On the other hand, if the mix is great, mastering will be enjoyable and the sonic quality improved.

  1. Keep mastering chain as CLEAN as possible

You need to keep this in mind, because anything you add to the mastering chain will alter the original sound and potentially degrade it. So beware of the risks of adding plugins (or hardware) to your mastering chain.

I would recommend having tools of the best quality as possible to add in the chain. This doesn’t mean you couldn’t use plugins that add a certain color, of course. Just make sure you are not heading in the wrong direction, by objectively listening to whatever it is they add to your sound.

  1. Be very SUBTLE with your tweaks

I can’t stress this point enough. If you add EQ boosts or cuts, 0.2-1dB is enough to make a sonic impact in tone. I’m serious. Very rarely do I go past the 1dB point, and if I do, I go back to the mix. When you make multiple tone-shaping decisions of a small amount, it will affect the whole picture in a noticeably audible way. So be gentle, and your music will sparkle.

Same with compression. 0.5-2dB of gain reduction should provide you enough “glue” and “punch” and somewhere between that range of gain reduction lies the sweet spot, where you will want to tune your compressor to.

  1. LISTEN with your ears – not your eyes

    Listen with your ears

    Listen with your ears

Listening is crucial to mastering. If you focus when you listen, your masters will be so much better than if only partly listening. What I mean by this is, whenever you try to find problem frequencies or trying to decide whether your tweaks are taking you in the right direction, close your eyes and your brain will free more capacity for your ears when your sense of sight is turned “off”. Only your ears will tell if your music sounds good!


 

Okay, I hope you have had time to think about these principles, and now it’s time to get to action. For this example, I pulled a remix I recently did and will be mastering it.

Waveform

A dynamic mix peaking at -9.5dB, leaving lots of headroom for mastering

 

Cleaning things up – Cutting and Balancing

The first thing I do, is pull up an EQ and insert it as the first plugin in the chain. I’m going to use my favorite – the FabFilter Pro-Q 2.
First, let’s clean up the low end. The EQ is set to mid/side mode which allows us to process the mono and stereo information individually. Bass doesn’t generally like to be reproduced in stereo, so I create a gentle 6dB/oct low cut (also known as a high pass filter) at 70Hz, only cutting the sides. My first impressions are my kick drum just gained more clarity and weight, and my bass improved in imaging and definition. Good!

Low Cut

Low cut at 70Hz on the side signal only, the blue line representing the sides in FabFilter Pro-Q 2, the white being the mids

The snare seems to lack just a little bit of clarity, so I tried a small cut at 200Hz. What I noticed was, while my snare clarified a bit, it lost its punch totally. To remedy this, I switch the cut only to the side signal, so the middle information, where the punch of the snare lies, isn’t touched at all. Now the snare is quite clear. I still hear a little bit of “boominess” in it so I make another, smaller cut at the same frequency, but in the mid signal, where the boomy frequencies lie. The side cut is 0.5dB and the mid cut 0.2dB. We’re getting there.

Snare EQ

EQing the snare drum at 200Hz with mid/side EQ

I find in this particular song, the 1000Hz range includes some of the “coldness” I don’t like, and reducing it brings some warmth back that I want. What happened though, was that the vocal lost some of its power. I tried to switch the cut only to the sides, but in this range, I needed to cut the mids too in order to gain the warmth I wanted. So what I did was, create a mid-only boost just a tad bit higher, at 2000Hz, to affect the vocal and bring its presence back. The cut was again a gentle 0.5dB and the boost 0.30dB.

Removing some 1000Hz coldness and adding a bit of 2000Hz presence

Removing some 1000Hz coldness and adding a bit of 2000Hz presence

At this point, my master so far sounds pretty good. Lastly, I found that cutting just a little bit at 400Hz would remove some “boxyness” and result in a warmer low end and not-so-cluttered midrange. I only cut the mids and left the sides untouched, so the stereo width would stay unharmed at this frequency.

Gentle, 0.25dB cut at 400Hz for warmth

Gentle, 0.25dB cut in the mids at 400Hz for warmth

After some comparative listening with the bypass button on the EQ, I noticed that the 2000Hz boost I had made earlier was too much, because the high end had gained too much crispiness compared to the original. So I needed to back it down from 0.30dB to 0.10dB to tame the crispiness a bit. Talk about subtlety, right?

Final Spectrum

The final spectrum of the cleaning EQ. Notice the scale on the right – it only goes to 3dB so everything you see is VERY subtle. Click for a large image.

Okay, this is it for cleaning my mix up using very subtle EQing. As you can see, the biggest cut was 0.5dB and the only boost 0.10dB. The goal of this part was to gently balance out some unwanted “muddyness” or “coldness”, and the track is now prepared for all the additive EQ and compression we’ll be looking at next.

Be aware that all the frequencies I processed with EQ are unique to the song I was working on. When you master a song yourself, you need to listen which are the problematic areas in your music. So take these as general pointers.

In the next parts we’ll be looking at additive or “character” EQing, mastering compression, sonic enhancing and limiting.

Thanks for tuning in, please leave your questions and comments below and I’ll be happy to get back to you.

-JP

CONTINUED IN PART 2

Top 10 Music Production Software – Plugins

The market is filled with useful and inspiring plugins for the user to take advantage of. It’s quite important to find your own “Top 10” because those are the ones you’ll be coming back to. A lot.

Here I have listed my favorite music production software plugins, which I use in a recurring fashion. They are in no specific order.


 

1. Native Instruments KONTAKT

1-kontakt

Native Instruments KONTAKT 5

KONTAKT is everything that one could desire for sampling. It’s the ultimate sampler. You can purchase third party instrument or drum libraries for it or create your own. The default library that comes with KONTAKT is quality. You can modulate any parameter within KONTAKT which makes it truly a modular sampler. It requires a little effort to get to know KONTAKT, but is well worth it.

2. Soundtoys EchoBoy

2-echoboy

Soundtoys EchoBoy

Analog delays, chorusing, flanging, reverbs, saturation… You name it. Soundtoys Echoboy is a multi-effects box hidden under the name of a delay. The sound is amazing, analog and dirty if needed. EchoBoy models the sound of a bunch of classic hardware delay boxes, as well as tape. I’m wondering if I ever need another delay in my life.

3. Soundtoys PanMan

3-panman

Soundtoys PanMan

PanMan provides the classic automatic panning effects that sweep audio between the left-right axis. Is something too centered and dull? Got it. Need some movement? No problem. The concept of PanMan is simple, but very effective.

4. Fabfilter Pro-Q 2

4-proq

FabFilter Pro-Q 2

The desert island EQ. FabFilter Pro-Q 2 provides everything anyone could ever need in an EQ. Spectrum analysis, frequencies in note values, 6dB to 96dB/octave filter slopes and mid/side processing are just a scratch on the surface. Did I mention the sound quality on this thing? I’m especially fond of the new Natural Phase processing mode, which matches the phase response of analog EQ’ing.

5. PSP McQ

5-mcq

PSP McQ

Inspired by analog classic EQs, the McQ delivers that sound. I love this thing for general track tone-shaping and cutting, which seem to make my instruments “sit” in the mix just the way I want them to. PSP McQ has a very nice color to it, which I’m especially fond of for vocals.

6. Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection

6-vcc

Virtual Mixbuss from Slate Digital VCC

Slate Digital’s VCC is a bit of a luxury. It models the signal path of classic mixing consoles’ channel and mixbuss. VCC is great for mixing. When you put things through it, the effect is certainly subtle but if you know what you are looking for, it’s there. Do you need it? Generally, it might not be the most important plugin to reach for. But if you’re an analog nut like me, you’ll certainly value and love it.

7. Valhalla VintageVerb

7-veethree

Valhalla VintageVerb

Valhalla makes some great plugins. And they go for cheap. I have tried lots of reverbs, and always find myself tweaking them in order to fit an element into the mix. With VintageVerb, it always happens quickly. I find myself tweaking less and finding the sound I want from a reverb. My instruments just tend to “sit” better in my tracks when processed with some VintageVerb flavor.

8. Waves CLA-2A

8-cla2a

Waves CLA-2A

Definitely not a go-to, Swiss army knife compressor, but the CLA-2A rocks. Modeled after the legendary LA-2A Leveling Amplifier, it’s my favorite analog style compressor. The way this thing “grabs” whatever you put through it is like no other. I use it on melodic instruments mainly, but my favorite applications would be piano and vocals. Best of all, there are only two main knobs, which makes my grandma able to use it.

9. Waves MetaFlanger

9-metaflanger

Waves MetaFlanger

The MetaFlanger is a classic Waves effect. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, you know why this thing is so good. Soft, deep, evolving sounds for days. It’s my favorite on long, sustaining sounds. Could work wonders on a bassline as well.

10. Brainworx bx_meter

10-bxmeter

Brainworx bx_meter

All the effects aside, let’s not forget about proper metering. Brainworx bx_meter has everything you could ask for in a metering plugin. Stereo balance and correlation, peak, RMS and dynamic range values, K-system metering… Man, this thing lives on my master bus.


 

Hopefully you have found some inspiration from my top 10 plugin list. Now go and gather your own and see what makes your music tick! If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below and I’ll be happy to get back to you.

-JP

How to Compress Vocals – Part 2 of 2

Continued from Part 1.

Getting the dynamics spot-on

Very often the vocals I receive are too dynamic, which means the loud parts can have sudden peaks that are too much, and the softer parts are just too quiet to hear in context of a song. This is the case especially if no compression was used in the recording stage, which is usually a good thing because compression can always be added afterwards. In this section I’ll show you how to compress vocals as a whole, and tailor its dynamic range to fit into a mix.

A dynamic vocal

A dynamic vocal. Spot the difference between the largest peak and the quiet parts.

The main goals I have for vocal dynamics are:

  1. Hear every single word
  2. Get a professional sounding feel to the vocal

Songs would be pointless if one could not hear what the singer is singing. If some words are being drowned in the mix, the compressor comes to the rescue. My favorite method for bringing out quiet words and details in a vocal is fast attack, fast release compression, with a capable compressor such as Waves CLA-76.
Try it if you have problems not hearing every word properly, or want to bring forward low-level details.

Set the ratio to 3:1 or 4:1, attack and release to as fast as possible, then adjust the threshold to get a healthy -3 to -6 dB of gain reduction. Adjust the make-up gain accordingly to level match the loudest parts, and you’ll hear the difference. Tweak the attack to let some transients through if needed, for a less “squashed” sound. Tweak the release for a less in-your-face, and a more gentle sound. The attack and release knobs are great tools to adjust the vocal to your personal taste.

When done, you should have a nice, rounded vocal which sits nicely in the mix. You can try stacking more than one compressor to flatten it out even more, if you didn’t achieve desired results.

Waves CLA-76 - one of my favorite compressors for the job. Fastest attack and release, 6dB of gain reduction.

Waves CLA-76 – one of my favorite compressors for the job. Fastest attack and release, 6dB of gain reduction.

Original and compressed vocal

The original vocal on top, and the CLA-76 processed version on the bottom. Notice how the quiet parts gained more level, while the peaks were flattened a bit.

Hiss, you shall not pass

A very critical and often overlooked part of a vocal is the high end, especially the annoying, ear-abusing “ess” –sounds. Just like working with the low midrange, you can use the same tools but focus on the highs. Usually, the annoying frequencies lie above 3000hz, all the way up to the frequency spectrum.

My method of highlighting the problem frequencies is, set up a single-band compressor like we did tackling the low mids (or use the EQ into compressor trick), crank your monitors so you hear the annoying frequencies and where they “hurt” your ears, create a narrow filter area and sweep it around until you find a spot where the compressor starts attenuating the bad frequencies and the vocal actually turns out sounding pleasant. Set a large ratio so the compressor can act more like a limiter.

Custom de-esser

Custom de-esser. Notice the sidechain filter is calibrated to 3-18kHz, as that is where the “ess” lies in this vocal, which is highlighted and played as a loop on the right. Fastest attack and release to quickly tame the bad frequencies, 10:1 ratio and 6dB of gain reduction was enough to do the job.

You have just created a custom de-esser. Well, you could’ve just used a simple de-esser plugin in the first place, though I believe when you do things the hard way, you’ll actually learn more and find applications you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

When you get the “esses” under control, the music can be played louder and the cold sounding frequencies won’t be bothering the listener anymore.

I hope these techniques have helped you in your vocal mixes, as they sure have made my life easier. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below as usual.

-JP

 Listen to these song examples, to hear compression in action

Drake – Furthest Thing (Extremely compressed vocal but doesn’t sound squashed. Suits the dirty vibe of the track and low mids are perfectly under control. Love it.)

Coldplay – Always In My Head (Huge vocal sound. Great, radio-style vocal compression. Listen to the “esses” in this one, de-essing is done beautifully.)

Dido – My Lover’s Gone (Very dynamic and natural vocal, not too compressed at all. Every word is heard though, and shows that it can be done without excessive amounts of compression.)

How to Produce a Song at Home – This Is What You Need

In 2014, we are very lucky to be spoiled with an abundance of music creation tools.  Anyone is now able to learn how to produce a song at home – or anywhere for that matter, due to technological leaps in computers, laptops and music production software.

I’m going to list everything you need to have in order to start producing music. Fun fact: you’ll probably already have most of it in your possession.


 

Making Music

Making Music

What You Absolutely Need

  1. Computer

Any modern computer will do, be it a desktop or laptop. Keep in mind though, that CPU power and physical memory are key here. With 8 to 16 GB of installed memory and a CPU capable of multithreading, such as the Intel Core i7-2600, you’ll have a killer rig that will handle any situation in your production affairs.

  1. Audio Interface

Every modern computer will have an audio interface integrated into it, so you can get straight into the production game. But if you are even the least bit serious about making your own tunes, you need to buy an external audio interface, so you’ll get your audio performance, sound quality and latencies to real world levels. You’ll be able to record your instruments or singing through it as well. Read my review of RME’s Babyface interface here.

  1. Speakers

    Studio Monitors

    Studio Monitors

You probably have a set of speakers already, and those will work just fine, up to a point. When I started out, I owned a pair of Logitech T20’s, and made a bunch of music with them. Porter Robinson used a pair of $100 Logitech Speakers too, and look at him now. After some point though, you’ll want to look into acquiring real studio monitors, such as the cheap but surprisingly good Behringer Truth –series.

In addition to speakers, you could look into using headphones. Read my review of Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro headphones.

  1. DAW Software

Lastly, you need a Digital Audio Workstation – a DAW. There are lots to choose from, and you should check out this list by Musicradar if you are in the search of one. Personally, I have used Image-Line FL Studio, Cockos REAPER and Avid Pro tools, and they are all good, capable workstations, though different. Choose wisely for your own needs, and stick with it.

Most DAWs are fully equipped with everything you need to make music. Virtual instruments, effects, mixer, sampler, it’s all there. You could basically use your mouse and keyboard to make full songs, as I have done when I was a starting out.

Avid Pro Tools

Avid Pro Tools


 

Home Recording Environment

Home Recording Environment

What Are Optional, But Highly Recommended

  1. MIDI Keyboard

You wouldn’t be wanting to use your mouse or keyboard to play virtual instruments forever, would you? These things go for very cheap, and I think it’s an essential piece of hardware to have in the studio. You can basically trigger all MIDI events with it. You can play drum kits from samplers, improvise with a virtual piano or create the nastiest bassline by playing it.

A MIDI Keyboard

A MIDI Keyboard

  1. Real Musical Instruments

Having real, actual instruments is always a good thing. Musical ideas are easily extracted from different instruments, by playing and just improvising with them. Also, they provide true contrast to all

Shure SM57 Microphone

Shure SM57 Microphone

the digital. It’s only healthy to have at least some instrument laying around, such as a guitar.

  1. Microphone

If you want to record yourself singing, you need to have a microphone. You could also record yourself playing for example, acoustic guitar, and lay down songs in no time.

  1. Virtual Instruments and Plugins

There are tons of virtual instruments and effects plugins out there. Even though most DAWs have their default instruments and plugins, and you’ll do perfectly fine with them, it is a good idea to do some research about a particular instrument or effect you would be searching for, because they could greatly increase the quality of your productions. Check out this article over at Producer’s Mind for a good selection of third-party instruments and plugins.

  1. Sample Packs

You’ll probably need samples, most often drums (if you’re not a drummer and willing to record yourself playing) to be able to lay down a beat. Again, DAWs usually have a set of default drum kits, but look deeper for a quality boost in your drum samples. Native Instruments’ KONTAKT has some great drum kits and sampled instruments which I use all the time.

Native Instruments KONTAKT

Native Instruments KONTAKT – with piano and drums loaded


 

As DAWs are relatively cheap nowadays (such as Cockos REAPER, which costs only $60 – the price of a video game), it would be a perfect gift for someone interested in music to get their hands on a fully equipped music creation environment.

I hope you now have a picture of what you need to do to immerse yourself in the world of music production. Of course, after you have acquired all the necessary tools in order to make music, all you have to do then is, well, make music. If you have questions, comments or feedback, please leave them below and I’ll get back to you.

-JP

RME Babyface Review – Real, Portable Sound Delivered

During fall 2014 I purchased a new audio interface because I thought it was time to upgrade the core of my studio’s sound. I had some problems with the interface I had earlier, such as blue screen crashes and static noise coming out of my speakers, as well as sudden cuts to silence in audio which all contributed to my decision to get a new interface.

After some research, I was confident that RME Babyface would become my new audio interface. And honestly, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. This is my RME Babyface Review.

The Package

The Package

The Package

RME Babyface is supplied with a nice carrying bag, user guide, drivers and TotalMix software as well as a USB-cord and an breakout cable for I/O. I could imagine the breakout cable a problem for someone who doesn’t want a bunch of cords laying on their desk or the potential hassle, but for myself it isn’t a problem. There are inputs on the side of the Babyface for headphones and a line input for plugging in a guitar for example. Two XLR inputs for microphones are accessed by the breakout cable, as well as the outputs for main speakers.

RME Babyface

RME Babyface – guitar plugged in on the side

In total there are two analog preamp inputs which means you could plug in two microphones, or one microphone and instrument at the same time. In addition to the two analog inputs, there are digital ADAT and SPDIF connections available to expand on, providing a potential total of 10 analog input and 12 output channels.

For more information and tech specs, head over to RME’s website.

Quality, quality, quality…

Here I have listed the main reasons why I think the Babyface is a great product:

  1. Sound Quality

The sound quality on the Babyface is top notch. It is crystal clear, transparent, dynamic, and has such presence that it requires one to hear it for themselves. The separation between the high-, mid- and low-ranges is excellent, and there is no “mud” whatsoever to make it harder to pinpoint certain frequencies. To sum the sound quality of the Babyface in one word: pristine.

  1. Stability and Trust

I don’t know what to say. I haven’t had one crash, noise burst, or problem with the Babyface since I acquired it. In short, RME Babyface is an extremely stable and trustworthy device to have in the studio which makes its owner proud. The drivers are in a league of their own.

  1. Recording Quality

What you put through the Babyface’s preamps is what you get. The recordings are incredibly clean and clear and there is virtually no noise floor. Because of the quality of the recording, it leaves the user to process the recordings afterwards at their own will, with compressors, saturators and so on.

Features

Big Knob, Select, Recall and Dim

  1. Features

RME Babyface has some pro-level features without which my life would get much harder.

  • Dim

The dim function works by pressing the large volume knob on top of the interface and it “dims” the main volume by a user-set amount. I have mine set to -20dB. For example, if I need to answer my phone or do some talking, I can just hit the dim button and push it back again to return to the level of volume I had before. It is also useful to quickly reference whatever you are working on at a lower level and hear how the mix or instrument levels sound at a lower volume.

  • Recall

The Recall function becomes useful when you have found that perfect level to monitor your mix or production. How it works is, just find an appropriate volume that pleases you with the main volume knob, then press and hold down the Recall button for a few seconds, and it has now stored that volume setting in its memory. Now, whenever you click the Recall button the volume returns to the level you set it to remember. You can now, for example, quickly listen to your music at a loud level to see how hard it punches and push the Recall button to return to your main level of volume. I love this function.

  • Navigation
Navigation

Navigation and Meters

The navigation through the different functions is dead easy. You can navigate between the recording input levels, main output level and headphone level by clicking at the “Select” button and adjusting the levels with the main volume knob. While in “In” mode, pressing the main volume knob jumps between adjusting the input gain of inputs 1 and 2 individually, and both at the same time.

  1. Big Volume Knob

Probably my favorite feature of the Babyface is the giant volume knob. It’s so pleasant to use and I love the fact that it adjusts volume in little steps or ticks. So adjusting the volume is not stepless. The steps are around 3dB. I find this decision of design useful when browsing through different volume levels and effortlessly finding that spot you want. As said before, the volume knob also works as the Dim function by pressing it.

TotalMix FX

The Babyface is supplied with TotalMix FX software which basically acts as a software mixer and controller. Personally I don’t use it too much, except to enable Phantom Power for my microphones (I think it can only be enabled through the software) and using some of the DSP effects, such as the EQ to cut some unneeded low end on the recording inputs before they reach my DAW, so I don’t need to insert any EQs there.

You can also set up a monitoring reverb for recording an instrument from the software. The Dim function’s dB values are set here too.

I think TotalMix FX and its usability could split some opinions between users but for my personal needs using it has not been an issue. Not to confuse things, TotalMix FX is a very powerful mixer and offers deep routing capabilities. It just demands a bit of studying the manual to fully get the grip on it.

TotalMix FX

TotalMix FX

PROS

  • Excellent Sound Quality
  • Extremely Stable
  • Clean, Quality Preamps
  • Hardware Features

CONS

  • The Breakout cable is a potential nuisance
  • TotalMix FX could get a bit frustrating
  • The price which floats around 500€ or $700Babyface_Score

To conclude, RME Babyface is an excellent piece of hardware with long-lasting audio performance for years to come. It is a product for audio professionals and those who are serious about audio and music production. I highly recommend you to keep the Babyface in mind if you are looking for a high level, portable audio interface. It is a pricy product, but the price is justified by its quality. In my studio, the Babyface has arrived to stay.

-JP

Get Babyface now on Amazon and take your sound to the professional level!

How to Free Your Mind and Gain Perspective On Your Music

Spending time in the studio for long periods at once can cloud your judgment about your music as well as produce frustration which can lead to writer’s block. Every once in a while, you need to get out and breathe some fresh air in order to function.Frustration

The usual symptoms I get when I realize that now is the time to do something else than music are: hearing only “noise” and a “2D wall of sound” through the speakers, and not being able to focus on the song in its entirety or little parts. The mind gets somehow “cloudy” and it’s hard to make good decisions while producing or mixing. The creative spark gets lost and it’s really hard to create, and it shouldn’t be, as it should be fun and enjoyable.

Another problem with staying alone in the studio is boredom. Where’s the fun if making music gets boring?

Here are ways on how to free your mind and set your thoughts elsewhere between intense music production sessions, and gain new perspective:

  1. Exercise and turn your mind elsewhere

This is my favorite way of getting music totally out of my head. Just go out and do whatever you do for exercise and fun, and forget music. Personally, I like to go out skateboarding, as I have done for 15

years, and it puts me in a totally meditative, focused state of mind. The activity takes all the real estate in my mind, which is exactly why I enjoy it so much. If you haven’t found a way to do something physical and fun, I suggest you to think about what interests you and what you would like to be getting into.

  1. Take your music with you while exercisingExercise

This method is especially effective if you need a quick remedy to a problem at hand. What I often do is print the most recent versions of my tracks and put them on my iPod, and go out jogging for 30-45 minutes while listening to them. If you haven’t tried this, you definitely need to, as it could surprise you. Your mind relaxes as you get into the flow of it, and you start noticing things about your music you wouldn’t have in the studio. The brain just starts working again. Of course, you can choose an activity that interests you, and try this method while doing it.

  1. Force yourself out of the studio, every day

It is enough if you just exit your musical kingdom for a short while each day, even for 15 minutes at a time, as it makes your mind concentrate on different things and especially, you ears. Ear fatigue is very common and makes tasks like mixing very challenging. But it can be controlled too, it only demands responsibility to be able to take breaks throughout the day.

 

  1. Have discussions with your musician and producer friends

If you have friends in your life who are musicians or producers like you, try to spend time with them. They are struggling with the same issues as you are, and tackling them together can get very inspiring – as you are not alone. You will not only gain perspective on new kinds of music by enlarging your musical knowledge, your life will become easier just by acknowledging the support they have for you, and vice versa.

  1. Do other things in lifeSmile

This is very self-explanatory. If you do other things next to music, you will have better energy, more inspiration, more life experiences to write music about and most of all, you will be looking forward to returning to the studio, I guarantee you that. Taking a little break from music from time to time can influence your musicality in a very positive way. Enjoy a trip abroad or holidays without music. You’ll see what I mean.

  1. Listen to music outside of your genre

Stay open to all music, and at least give them a chance, because you’ll come across other genres and styles you will fall in love with. From a production point of view, the musical ideas gathered from other genres than your own could take your own productions to the next level. Different genres of music have their own general sound, their own dynamics, instrumentation and musicality. Listening to other music will force you out of the “trap” of your own genre. Stay alert, because you might just get influenced by something totally different and by something you never would have thought of yourself and have the inspiration to incorporate similar elements to your own productions. Now that’s perspective to you.Inspiration

Have fun with music, but remember to step away if you feel like something’s not right, and just let it be for a while. Accept the fact that your mind can only take so much. Keep that musical brain breathing!

-JP