Music Production – Keeping Creativity Alive.
Music Production – How To Skin A Cat
There are as many ways to approach music production than there are styles of music and because so many people are recording their own tracks these days a music producer has to have a very flexible approach to working. At least that’s what I’m finding here at Offbeat Music Productions.
A case in point was a record I made with singer Mark A.G. who came to the studio from Brighton with ideas and musical parts he had created on an app on his iPad which only cost around a fiver. The piano parts Mark wrote turned out to be good enough to stick with right through to the the final mix, like on the excellent track featured on the audio player here entitled Louder.
His parts survived as midi exports which were then re-triggered with a Native Instruments piano that I had installed as a third party plug in on my Logic Pro-X DAW.
Working on his ideas on his iPad was perfect for Mark who didn’t want to get bogged down with gear just to be able to get his musical ideas across in the studio. In fact, I often warn musicians and songwriters not to get unnecessarily involved in recording equipment unless there is a real calling for them to become recording engineers and producers. The danger is that they stop writing songs and start becoming technicians.
The Tyranny Of (Too Much) Choice
The ridiculous choices of soft synths and samples available in digital workstations now can actually paralyse the creative process in some cases. Back in the days of 8 track studios and 16 or even 24 track recording you really had to limit what went into the recordings and in some ways this was useful. It’s fun being able to chuck everything into a recording and recently I did a track with a songwriter that had 74 guitars in it, and somehow it worked! But it can be problematic and things have gone too far if there are so many elements in a song the listener can’t actually focus on anything.
Back in the days of 4 track Portastudios, like the Tascam and Fostex machines that made multi tracking affordable for the first time for songwriters, it was pointless to try and create finished recordings on these hissy, noisy cassette based machines which were best used as storyboards for songs. I should know, I tried!
My wife Kirsty & I spent four months in a cottage in the Isle Of Skye in the early 80’s trying to make an album on a Fostex machine. Recording a sync track on one track to run a drum machine and keyboard, recording audio on two channels, bouncing to another track while adding something ‘live’ on the go and then freeing up the original tracks and recording over them again. Further down the line it became obvious that the levels in the original bounce were not correct and of course we couldn’t go back as the bounces were destructive. After several attempts to recreate the tracks from scratch the project was abandoned.
This approach was a mistake, it would have been wiser to just keep bashing ideas out demos and focusing on songwriting at that stage. I should have just used the portastudio demos as storyboards for the songs and recorded them properly at a later stage but OCD had kicked in big time. Some of these tracks actually sounded pretty good as demos though and when we started our own studio in Edinburgh we reproduced some of the tracks using analogue and midi multi tracking technology to much better effect.
Another great example of doing a demo of ideas prior to getting involved in music production was with a vocalist and talented songwriter I worked with last year called Tawanda Muchemwa who works under there name Big Tee for his Firebrand Movement album which I had the great pleasure of producing.
He arrived on day one of the session with all of the musical parts sung straight into his mobile phone. The drums, the bass line, the backing vocals, the lead vocals were all there. Within two hours we had established the first song for the most part. I heard the drum parts he had sung in (boom-cha style) and recreated them using 808 drum samples. His voice hummed bass line was reinterpreted and virtually copied by me as a real bass guitar part.
He then listened one by one to his own multiple backing vocal ideas on his phone and sung them straight into the recording using a AKG Solid Tube mic which suited his voice perfectly. This proved something that I had known intuitively for a long time as a songwriter. If you hear a part first in your head then 9 times out of 10 it works! You can hear how this worked out in track two of the player on this page with the song Stuck In A Rut .
A few years back I worked with excellent singer Eddie Elliott who was on tour playing at Edinburgh’s Playhouse on the We Will Rock You tour. Tired of playing exactly the same show night after night the only way to keep his creative juices flowing was to come into the studio and write a song from scratch there and then. He had no idea what he was going to do before he arrived and he didn’t want to know either.
I put a Shure SM58 into his hands and he started singing melodies which formulated into words during the time it took for me to work out musical parts for the ideas he had in his head. The resulting track entitled Oh, which took a few sessions to achieve, can be heard on track 3 on the audio player. Unless you have the courage of your own convictions this can be a risky and potentially expensive way to work.
Of course this way of working doesn’t work for everyone and there are many so many ways to approach writing a song and giving vent to creative urges. As long as you achieve results there are no right and wrong ways of working.
Kirsty and I are working on a new album of songs now under our name Harmonic Overdrive and are employing a range of music production approaches to achieve a fresh but consistent result for each track which will be discussed in my next music production blog.
Vigilante & Spytec Hip Hop Album Trilogy
My son, Producer Paul McKinna aka Vigilante talks about how he put together his mega trilogy of hip hop albums with producer Spytec based on his favourite movies. To get in touch with Paul about making beats for your tracks Contact Us.
“I started making Hip Hop beats when I teamed up with Profisee to form Great Ezcape, in Edinburgh Scotland, around 2004 with the later additions of Nik (The Manufacturer) PT, Ema J, and Simba. We released a couple of E.P.’s, did some shows, got some radio play, but after a couple of years started going in different directions so we parted ways to work on other projects. But that’s another story…
After Great Ezcape went on hiatus, I wanted to do a solo project I could move forward with at my own pace to keep my chops. So I decided to give myself a challenge, in fact the biggest challenge I could think of; I was going to remix the entire Bullitt soundtrack to Busta Rhymes acapella’s as a free promotional album. The Bullitt soundtrack had always been like Holy Ground to me in the past, being my favorite composer, Lalo Schifrin, my favorite soundtrack of my favorite film, starring no less than my favorite actor, Steve McQueen, and as such I never would sample it because I didn’t feel I was capable of doing it justice, being that I’d placed it on such a high pedestal. But now I felt I had the chops to handle it and was race ready. Going with all Busta Rhymes was not a hard decision, as again it seemed like the biggest challenge and I loved the idea of hearing his flow over my beats. There’s 16 tracks on the Bullitt soundtrack and I only had 3 Busta Rhymes acapella’s so after remixing the Bullitt Theme to Busta’s Woo Ha! to test the waters, I put my good friend & collaborator Brian White aka Spytec on the case, who did online searches, posted threads on hip hop forums, and harassed DJ’s till my “dream of 16” was complete. Meanwhile I had been steadily working on getting all these acapella’s in time & writing beats for them before figuring out how the Bullitt soundtrack was going to fit in to all of this. After many hours of chopping, tweaking, mixing, testing in nightclubs at 4am after hours, I finally finished what I still consider my masterpiece. So Bri knocked up some artwork with a nice nod to the Bullitt original soundtrack artwork.
So at some point during all this Bram at Black Lantern Music offered to release it on they’re site http://www.blacklanternmusic.com, and I did a launch with Spytec in Edinburgh at The Green Room. After that, I got a video guru I know, Ollie Elliott, to edit the car chase from Bullitt to my remix of the chase music and then we had a video. All in, the first release was pretty lackluster, mainly because I was scared to promote it for copyright issues, even though it was only ever intended as a “passion project” and to showcase what I can do.
Meanwhile, I was itching to keep the momentum I had gained and had enjoyed doing it so much I decided to follow it up with a sequel, and figured I’d continue with the Lalo Schifrin theme because really, who else would I sample for an entire album? This time I really wanted a challenge, as I was going to do this next one as a joint effort between Spytec and myself, seeing as he’d proven to be so resourceful with the first one considering I couldn’t have done it without him and because he’d done a couple of remixes himself that blew my mind so this one would be “Spytec & Vigilante Presents” as to the previous “Vigilante Presents”. This is the biggest misconception/confusion created by us, being that some sites (including Discgs and Black Lantern) list the first one as Spytec & Vigilante, in anticipation of the 2nd one, where the artwork only says Vigilante. This time we chose Cool Hand Luke, an 18 track soundtrack , and unlike the Bullitt soundtrack, which is a Hip Hop producers dream, filled with brass, flutes, and strings, Cool Hand Luke was full of banjo’s, acoustic guitars accompanying the brass, flutes, and strings, keeping with the films “Deep South” setting but making finding Hip Hop worthy samples in every track almost impossible in some cases but by filter and by delay, we made it Hip Hop worthy, dammit! In choosing the emcee on this one, I wanted to go with my favorite emcee lyrically, feeling in my mind I’d successfully already conquered the king of flow, even if no one knew about it. I suggested Talib Kweli to Bri (aka Spytec) and he agreed before disappearing for a month to track down 18 plus Talib Kweli acapella’s which proved to be not an easy mission. In the end he was successful although we had to settle for a couple of D.I.Y. aca’s where the instrumental had been layered on top of the original with the phase reversed, cancelling out the track, leaving just the vocal & a bit of hihat, and headphone spill (yes, it works). Meanwhile Bri followed the same theme with the artwork and before we knew it, we were balls deep in banjo’s. This one we dubbed “Cool Hand Luke vs Kweli”.
By this point I had taken suffering for my art to a new level, having just spent the last 3 months on the first remix album, and now working full time on the second unpaid project. Having split the workload between us, I was actually sleeping on Bri’s couch now, with my computer set up in his living room while he had his set up in his bedroom. We’d be working on 2 remixes at a time as we totally vibe’d off each others creative energy. About halfway through it, we were getting banjo fever and knew there was only one cure and it wasn’t more cowbell; we needed a third album to complete the trilogy and give us a fresh burst of creative energy. This time we went with the ever amazing (and unfortunately, ever sampled) Enter The Dragon soundtrack, a great contrast to the cool San Francisco sounds of Bullitt and the Southern Country vibes from Cool Hand Luke. The other key factor in choosing Enter The Dragon was it was only a 10 track soundtrack so we figured we could knock it out in between troubleshooting the 2nd one. Now Bri came up with the plan of writing this one with Nas acapella’s so Enter The Dragon vs Nas was born, and we had work to do.
At around this time, life altering events brought on mainly by me focusing only on the tasks at hand and ignoring the rest of life lead to me deciding to move to Canada so the pressure was on to get the trilogy finished. Finally everything pretty much came together in time for my departure, apart from Bri’s last track on the Cool Hand Luke vs Kweli album. Ollie also did 2 follow up video edits of the other 2 movies.
After that, I moved to Canada, promptly put all things music on hold while I sorted out life in another country and things fell apart from there. I lost contact with Bri, as he’s seemingly vanished into thin air, as I haven’t heard from him in over 2 years. As a result, eventually I put my remixes from the Cool hand Luke vs Kweli & Enter The Dragon vs Nas albums up alongside the Bullitt vs Busta remixes for free download on soundcloud. If/when Bri surfaces, we’ll hopefully add his mixes to the equation too. Anyways, that’s the story of the trilogy that almost killed me”.
New mixer installed – The Yahaha DM2000
This month we have installed our new Yamaha DM2000 mixing desk which has transformed the studio into a 96 channel facility with the potential to record at at a sample rate of 96k.
The best thing by far about this desk are the preamps and analogue to digital converters which have a gorgeous warm sound before you even start applying any signal processing, whilst still offering the obvious benefits of digital. We have just completed our first recordings and are blown away by the sound.
We have also completely rewired the studio from top to bottom using top quality cabling and now every instrument has its own dedicated mixer channel which will reduce setup time and allow even more time for creativity.
As well as the capacity to handle an amazing amount of channels, the desk offers an individual compressor and noise gate on all 96 channels as well as hosting 8 independent internal multi effects. Another great feature is the ability to store and recall every detail of a mix as well as the various setups we use at the studio. For example at the click if a switch we are ready to record our studio drum kit. Then recalling the set up to record lead vocals is just a click away.
We are about to upgrade the desk to incorporate Class A Reverbs and Compressors which will take the sound into the stratosphere.
Upgrading any studio is an ongoing process and we still have ambitious plans for the future but its great to know the heart of the studio, the mixer, will serve us well for a long time to come.
EQ Tips & Advice
I have two distinctly different approaches to using EQ.. The first is in the recording stages where the instrument (and amp when being used) should be the focus of creating and colouring the sound source, along with choice of microphone and positioning. I normally employ EQ to remove unwanted frequencies from the audio at this stage so that when the track has been recorded I can then use EQ again to enhance the sound rather than try to fix things.
As instruments are being added I may use a parametric to deal with reducing unwanted frequencies. But as tracks are being layered up, listening along with what’s already been recorded will heavily influence my approach to tone as each new instrument is added. This is a musical decision and there are no rules to suggest. A light goes on in my brain when the sound blends well… you know the feeling! Allow instruments to have their own “space” in the frequency spectrum; don’t make them fight for it. Understand that instruments of the same type can sound different, so EQ accordingly.
To me EQ is more than just frequency control. One of the tricks in mixing is to consider EQ as volume too. A deliberately balanced mix can be subtly fine-tuned further by using EQ to create tiny volume adjustments much more effectively then reaching for the fader. After all boosting or cutting a frequency is actually a volume change too. If in doubt try “notching” and cut frequencies instead of boosting. EQing won’t save your mix; you can’t EQ out bad sound. I always cut frequencies below 90Hz for vocals, they add little to the mix and just muddy the sound. I find is useful to listen to 15 minutes of well mixed music before a mixing session to attune my ears. I tend to make decisions as I go along in a production so that I don’t have to make hundreds of decisions at the mix and mastering stages.
When Mastering EQ can finish off a mix perfectly. Ideally the EQ at this point will just enhance an already good mix. The old RIAA AES mechanical rule for vinyl was to cut frequencies at 47Hz and 12k, and some truly great recordings were made this way. Human perception at extreme highs and lows is not all that accurate or sensitive, and a little goes a long way.
I’ve worked with some engineers who over work on the EQ with almost no reference to the emotional content of the work so beware of the boffins!. It’s a crucial and hugely important signal processing tool which can make all the difference between a ordinary and brilliant mix but trust your instincts, over clinical use of eq can be correct.. but somehow unmusical.
Check out this EQ chart to give an idea of the normal frequency ranges of Instruments.
Remote Music Production – Working with artists nationally and internationally
Nowadays using file sharing applications like Dropbox, it’s possible to work remotely with artists all over the World on recordings. It creates great opportunities for musicians to work together—with people, equipment, time and even talent they may not otherwise have access to.
Here are some situations where this can be useful.
For solo artists or singer/songwriters who don’t have access to a real rhythm section on their songs.
For composers who need to have their music recorded using real instruments.
For musicians who already have completed recordings but they need them mastered.
If your track needs a vocalist or any other session musician on it.
If you have a complete track but need it to be mixed or re-mixed.
It doesn’t even matter which digital audio workstation (DAW) you are using as long as these simple rules are followed.
1- Let me know the tempo of the track, or if there are any tempo changes then send a text file or screen shot of the tempo change list for the track.
2- Export your audio tracks from bar 1 regardless of when the music starts. If the vocal doesn’t come in until bar 17 for example, it will be too complicated to export the audio from bar 17 as you would then have to send an instruction as to when the audio is meant to start in the arrangement of the song. If you export all audio from bar 1, including the gaps in between the audio, then all I have to do is import each audio tracks and place them at bar one in my arrangement window. Then everything you send will be in sync with my Logic Audio set up.
When musical parts are added here I then send the audio back in the same way, starting from bar 1, and you then will be easily able to sync the tracks done at Offbeat with your programme.
There are advantages to using the same software programmes but these days there are so many different programmes around that it would be very limiting so the above method gets around that effectively.
The first time I worked remotely was with producer Jon Cohen on the Spirit Of The Glen albums where we both used the same Logic programme. On the third album Jon wasn’t able to make the session in Edinburgh as he was working on another project in London, so he sent me a Logic file with his midi guides and tempo information on it for each song. I opened the file directly from our shared Dropbox folder – so that every time I saved the file I was working it automatically and immediately updated the file at his end too. If there were any issues he would contact me directly but otherwise he could monitor the session whenever he wanted to check on how the session was proceeding.
Mastering. Debunking the myths.
I Master in different software programmes depending on the type of music. Sometimes I use Logic Audio Mastering Tools, along with the Wave Plug-ins. Sometimes I use T-rax. Mastering shouldn’t take very long if the recording and mix is good.
There are two main reasons artists approach me for mastering.
1- To improve on a bad mix
2- To finish and improve on a good mix.
Many a good recording has been made worse, or even destroyed in the mastering process. A common error is to mistake an increase in volume for an improvement in the recording quality. If you play back both the unmastered and mastered tracks and reduce the volume of the mastered version to A/B the tracks at similar levels, you may find you have actually changed the balance of the mix. Assuming that the balance achieved in the mix was a deliberate effort, why would you want to suddenly change that at the end of the process?
Mastering tools are better employed to improve on a good recording instead of utilising them to fix mixes. Extreme eq, compression and limiting can’t really fix problems without drastically changing the balance of the mix too. It’s sometimes possible to focus a bad mix more by altering the EQ, Compression & Limiting. More often than not though if a track isn’t improved by mastering the best thing to do is go back and correct the mix.
What’s harder is the second option. To master a mix and retain the balance perfectly while still being able to stand out and be heard in the loudness wars. The problem with going for volume instead of dynamic range is that a soundwave that resembles a sine wave in the mix and sounds pleasant to the ear turns into a square wave when over compressed and limited. The resulting shrill, harsh tones do work well in some styles of Dance, but they seldom sound better on most types of music. A track that has a dynamic range of only 4db is actually tiring to listen because it’s essentially unmusical.
The aim in Mastering has to be to improve and tighten up the original mix while retaining the balance of the mix. It can sometimes be a good idea to master your music in a different studio to where it’s recorded if the budget allows. Mainly because if there are any imperfections in the studio where the music is recorded and mixed, this can be compounded by mastering in the same room with the same inherent problems. However, this can be overcome by listening back to the masters in a different room on different speakers.
The signal processing chain for Mastering tools is EQ first, then compression and then Limiting. This is because EQ and Compression will increase or decrease the volume of the mix and the limiter will put a ceiling on the overall level of the end result.
THE MYTH OF VOLUME BEING IMPORTANT ON THE RADIO OR TV.
When it comes to radio play an unmastered track can actually sound punchier than a mastered one, as the broadcasting compression that comes into play which already removes the dynamics of a song. The higher the level on the CD the more crushed and distorted a mix sounds.
So who are the real losers in the volume war?