I’m a producer!
As I try to do every year, I’ve updated my personal website (http://kimlajoie.com). One of my big challenges this year is to get better at being warm and friendly. As a producer, that means a friendlier photo, more context (studio in the background), audio examples and testimonials.
A producer helps artists make recordings. Yes, that often means positioning microphones, adjusting EQ, choosing the best reverb, etc. But it’s so much more than that. Beyond project management and business management, it requires empathy. That is, the ability to understand how another person is feeling. Music is how we tell stories about feelings. And my job as a producer is to make my artists sound more like how they want to sound (rather than making sound more like how I want to sound). If I’m going to do that at all, I need to know how they want to sound. If I’m going to do it well, I need to understand their creative direction. And in a quarter-century of music, I’m yet to meet an artist for whom creative direction is not intrinsically linked to their emotions.
And artists (or anyone, really) will only open up to someone they trust.
I know that being warm and friendly is what I’ve always been weakest at. I’ve become much better in the last ten years, but I still haven’t been been very good at communicating that I can be warm and friendly. So, this is something that I’m making a priority. Part of that means opening up a little more myself – providing more information about me, being honest about my weaknesses and shortcomings, telling a richer story about who I am and what I do.
Dynamic EQ is like a regular EQ, except that the gain of the bands can automatically respond to the level of the audio. There are many different variations of dynamic EQ – ranging from automatic, with few additional controls, all the way to fully configurable (with all the complexity that goes with it). Some dynamic EQs are designed to be ‘coloured’, where the processor has been deliberately designed to modify the audio in a complex, automatic and (hopefully) pleasing way. Other dynamic EQs are designed to be surgical and transparent, where the processor will only make exactly the change that you dial in.
Because of the variation in controls and approaches (not to mention behaviour), it’s difficult to provide specific advice for settings or configuration. Typically dynamic EQ will be used in mastering, and in similar situations to multiband compression. Think of it as a kind of multiband compression that’s even more targeted and surgical.
Dynamic EQ is ideally suited to removing ugly resonances that appear intermittently. Regular EQ would affect the audio even when the ugly resonance is not sounding, and multiband compression wouldn’t be surgical enough (likely to affect frequencies either side of the resonance).
As with multiband compression, dynamic EQ is best avoided unless it’s absolutely necessary and the problem can’t be fixed earlier in the mixing or recording process.
Of course your should be critiquing your own work. You probably do it constantly.
But you probably rely too much on your intuition. Going with your gut and what feels right. While this is important, you should also be aware that our intuition can be skewed by factors such as tiredness and conditioning (listening too much to the same song). Sometimes it’s useful to be able to get out of your own head and approach your music with a fresh perspective. Here are three tips to try:
Forget the effort it took
When you present your music to a fresh listener, they don’t know how long it took you to write or record or edit or mix it. They don’t know how difficult or easy it was. Sometimes something that was quick and easy to make can resonate strongly with people. Sometimes something that was difficult or arduous don’t catch. Try to listen as if it’s someone else’s music. This can be difficult – especially if you’ve spent a long time very close to your work. It can be useful to give yourself some space from the music – whether it be an hour or a week – and come back to it fresh. Other strategies can include listening on a sound system that you’re unfamiliar with, or including it in a shuffled playlist of other reference tracks.
Have the courage to delete good work
Just because you like the sound of a section or an instrument doesn’t mean it’s right for the song. Just because you spent a lot of time on it doesn’t make the result is worthwhile. Sometimes you need to press delete. Don’t be precious about it – focus on the creative direction of the music. Does it support the song? Sometimes you can make it better by removing instead of adding. Muster the courage. If you’re working in a DAW (or most other digital systems) you can easily save alternate versions so you don’t have to worry about going back to a previous iteration.
Don’t seek advice from anyone and everyone
Especially not in the early production stages. And especially not from people who are unqualified to give you useful feedback. One of the wonderful things about music is that everyone hears it differently. Everyone responds in different ways. There are as many unique perspectives as there are listeners. So you have to be careful about who you get feedback from, and how you ask for that feedback. Most casual (non-musician) listeners have difficulty articulating even basic musical concepts. Incorrect terminology can easily take you down the wrong path. Musicians will usually be more precise, but they might not share your context or creative direction. Without that, it’s likely that people will give you advice that makes you sound more like how they want you to sound, rather than how you want to sound. If you want some outside assistance, make sure you only approach people who understand your music and your creative direction.
Multiband compression is a complex and subtle tool. Compression itself is one of the more complex processes commonly used in mixing. Multiband compression multiplies that complexity. Compared to regular compression (also called ‘full band’ compression), multiband compression is much more complex because it works by applying several compressors in parallel, each operating on its own frequency band. Because the audio is split by frequency, multiband compression is best suited for processing complex audio with varying dynamic behaviour across the frequency range. Generally, this would be a full mix – either on the mix bus or in mastering.
Multiband compression is best used for one of two purposes – surgical problem solving or subtle levelling.
Multiband compression is ideally suited to some kinds of problem solving because it allows compression to be applied to a specific frequency range without altering the rest of the audio. For example, a mix with uneven bass guitar playing could be tightened by using multiband compression on the mix bus (or in mastering) to reduce the dynamic range of the low frequencies. This can work better than full band compression because the rest of the mix would not be affected. Another example could be a mix where the vocal is uneven and alternates between being too quiet and too loud. Depending on the mix, multiband compression could be used to even out the vocal in relation to the rest of the mix. In both these examples, multiband compression would be used in mastering – only if these problems couldn’t be fixed in the mix by processing the individual channels. While multiband compression can be a very exact tool, it is always better to fix these kinds of problems in the mix (or earlier) if at all possible.
Another use of multiband compression is subtle levelling. Rather than using a single band to solve a specific problem, all bands are activated and configured to gently ride the audio level. In this case, the bands are always being compressed, but only gently. This approach works best for mixes that are rather weak overall and not well-balanced. It can improve the overall tonal balance and dynamic behaviour in a much less damaging way than full range compression. As always, however, this approach is only appropriate if it’s not possible to go back and revise the original mix.
?One of the important things to be aware of when using multiband compression is that even small adjustments in one area can cause a perceived change in other areas. As with most other mastering procedures, try to keep the processing as subtle as possible.
So, I’ve got a bunch of projects going on. And lately I’ve been making good progress on two of them.
The electronic/metal project is going well. It’s looking like it’ll be an EP. I’ve worked out a workflow where I compose and record with Maschine and then edit and mix in Cubase (starting using the new version this year).
I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Maschine over the years. I love the hardware and integration with software. The more I use it, the more I appreciate how well designed it is. The sounds are superb – the included samples, the drum synths and the integration with Massive, Reaktor, etc. And it’s really fast and fun to start working on a track. But each time I start using it, I also get frustrated with a few things. Integration with a DAW feels clumsy because there are two timelines going on, or I have to insert MIDI clips in Cubase to trigger Maschine scenes. And while the pattern-based approach is great for starting a track, it’s got it’s limitations. It’s fiddly to do one-off edits or variations (such as drum fills or buildups). It’s even more fiddly to add or remove individual bars from sections. It really resists melodies that start before the beginning of a section. And while recording live performances works reasonably well, editing them is… Let’s just say you don’t want to do that.
So as much as I’d love to use Maschine for a lot of the vocal electronic/pop work I do with other artists, it just doesn’t fit with my workflow. I usually do preproduction with the artist/vocalist on a keyboard, acoustic piano or guitar and record a demo linearly to a click. Everything else gets built up around that demo recording. Sometimes that includes adding or removing bars or sections. But very often the very first recording for a project is the full length of the song. A lot of the composition is done before getting anywhere near a computer.
This time, however, I’m working differently. I’m doing the composition using Maschine as the instrument (in stand-alone mode, instead of a keyboard or guitar). I’m not working with a vocalist. I can choose to restrict my melodies to exclude anacruses. I’m also recording guitar into Maschine. No, I can’t edit my performances, but it’s my own project so I have the luxury of taking extra time to practice and record as many takes as I need. And I can come up with a well-developed instrumentation and a pretty good skeleton for the song structure. I then render the multitracks and bring them into Cubase, where I can do detailed edits and mix.
I’ve also entered the final stages of writing my book. It’s written primarily for artists – musicians who write, record and perform their own music. It’s about making art that matters and connecting with a supportive audience. The book itself is based on several years of talking to artists every day and helping them with understanding their place in society. The conversations I’ve been having with artists have steadily been becoming more complex and nuanced, and so I started to realise that what I have to say requires a medium with more scope and consideration than a blog post, email or verbal conversation. The book will be fairly substantial – approximately 15,000 words. And I’m aiming to have it released at the start of February. It’s a pretty big undertaking and I’m looking forward to getting it out.
Well, it’s that time of year again.
Most of you reading this will probably have noticed that most of the blog posts this year have been excerpts from my guides (see the menu at top-left of this page). Truth is, I’ve been exceptionally busy with other music work and haven’t had the time or energy to write much new stuff. In no particular order:
- My production and promotion work has been growing and maturing. I’ve had the good fortune to work with some really impressive artists on some exciting projects. Looking forward to seeing them released over the next few months.
- I’ve been photographing and reviewing local gigs. This has been fun. Photography is so much like music it’s uncanny. There’s the gear lust, the different genres to specialise in, the importance of skill and technique, the combination of technical and emotional expertise.
- I’ve even started up a magazine in the last couple of months. This has been a real trip. I’m so grateful for my amazing team. It’s been extremely stressful and equally rewarding. It’s also demanded a huge amount of my focus and energy for the last six months.
- My studio’s now got two pianos, I’ve been buying more hardware for recording and mixing and almost completely stopped using plugins for mixing (using only Cubase’s built-in effects when needed).
- My own music project Bare Toes Into Soil has been live on stage a bunch of times and we’ve released a mixtape of remixes and collaborations. I’m exceptionally pleased with the mixtape – sonically it’s probably the best work I’ve done.
It’s great to be able to look back and be proud of what I’ve put my effort into.
But right now, on New Year’s Eve, I feel that I’m in a strange place. I’ve made my whole life about music, and yet right now I feel the least excited about it as I’ve ever been. My other business projects (and there are more coming) have motivated and invigorated me, but I don’t feel a lot of energy for making my own music. Maybe it’s because I’ve been putting my creative focus into other avenues. Maybe I’ve been under too much stress to be as creative as I’d prefer. Maybe I feel some futility in putting so much effort into making music that few people will hear or care about. Maybe it’s all of the above.
I’m also feeling like I need a break from writing. Or maybe I need to take a break from structured writing. I’ve been working on a new book for artists that’ll be released at the end of January. I’ve spent years writing on this blog. I think I’ve probably said about as much as I care for now about composing, producing, recording, mixing, mastering, etc.
So, what next?
- I’ve got a bunch of projects about to pop out of the pipeline. That’ll all become clearer over the next month. That’s pretty exciting, and definitely my best work so far.
- I’m not sure what I’ll be doing on the music front. I’d like to continue Bare Toes Into Soil, but I don’t yet know what pace I’ll take it. I’ve also started a new music project – all distorted drum machines and angry guitars. After so many years of atmospheric electronica, I’m feeling that it might be the right time for me to return to some heavier music.
- This blog will continue, but I think I’ll make it a bit more personal. It doesn’t have to be a technical resource. It doesn’t have to be robotically published every Monday on the dot. I’ll write a bit more about what’s going on in my world. It might be a bit more opinionated. It might veer a little from production talk. It might not be published on Mondays.
Let’s see what happens.
Amazement is a departure from minor or dissonant tonality of aggression. Instead, high energy and instability are used to create a sense of surprise or wonder. This can be difficult to do well – the new material must be familiar to the listener. The best way to do this is to express ‘amazement’ later in the song, using significant musical material (such as melodies or sounds) that were presented earlier in the song.
Surprise is a more extreme expression of amazement. This is achieved by adding sudden changes to the unstable musical texture – the more sudden, the more surprising. The key is to combine the sudden changes with instability to create musical progressions and structural punctuation that has a high degree of unpredictability.
Anticipation is one of the most difficult emotions to express in music. It is a sense that something is coming – an expectation that something will happen, but an uncertainty of exactly what it will be. The difficulty is in finding the right balance. If the music is too predictable, the anticipation will turn to boredom. The music is too unpredictable, the anticipation will turn to confusion.
Anticipation is often expressed as a low energy section of music directly following a previous high energy section. For extended periods of anticipation, a gradual increase in energy works well to guide the listener’s expectations. Unstable textures also work well. Instability creates a desire in the listener for the song to resolve to stability – especially after prior stability earlier in the song.
In this context, ‘disgust’ doesn’t mean disgusting music… It’s a certain mood evoked by minor tonality, and slightly more energy and less stability than sadness. For example, a lot of late-90s trip-hop falls into this category.
With more energy and less stability, disgust comes across as having more momentum and direction than sadness or despair. In this way, disgust is more ‘active’-sounding, even though it still has mostly low energy overall.
Fear builds on disgust by focussing more on dissonant tonality. The low energy remains, but the instability is ramped up and becomes a prominent feature of the musical texture. While a stable low energy texture can convey calmness and reflection, an unstable low energy texture conveys uncertainty and unease.
Fear can also be used to convey feelings of apprehension. Apprehension is particularly effective when it hints at a previous section of music that was particularly high-energy or even startling.
Aggression takes the minor (or dissonant) tonality and instability of fear, but adds high energy. The high energy works together with instability to add excitement and action to the negative tonality.
Aggression can also be used to convey feelings of anger or violence. It can also be expressed with less stability, but it is less effective. It might be appropriate, however, to express a more stable aggression in a song to contrast with less stable musical textures.
Serenity is similar to the ‘joy / love / hope’ group of emotions, except with less emphasis on the happy or uplifting components. Like joy, serenity is best expressed using stable musical material. Unlike joy, however, serenity also comes through best with a low energy level and a gradual rate of change.
The stability provides comfort and dependability, but the low energy level also adds a relaxed element. Rather than being important or demanding, a serene section of music needs to be unobtrusive. An emphasis on gradual change also works here – sudden change will be too jarring (although sometimes it makes sense to have a jarring transition out of a serene section!).
Sadness is similar to serenity in the stability and low energy, but moves towards a predominantly minor tonality. Consonance can also help, but will depend on the overall tonal language of the song. Sadness
can also be used to convey a message or feeling of despair. Despair can work with more dissonant tonalities.
The minor tonality sets the general negative mood of the music. In this case, the stability and low energy set the kind of negative mood – rather than being exiting or jarring, there is a calmness and quiet – almost tranquility. Negative tranquility very easily triggers feelings of loss, aftermath or reflection on past misdeeds.
Gating and expansion work similarly to compression. While compressors automatically turn the volume down when the input audio rises above the threshold, gates and expanders automatically turn the volume down when the input audio falls below the threshold.
The simplest example of this is a basic noise gate – it mutes the audio when the instrument isn’t playing. This works when the threshold is set just a little higher than the background noise. When the instrument isn’t playing, the background noise is below the threshold so the gate ‘closes’ – it mutes the audio (turns it all the way down). When the instrument is playing, however, the audio level rises above the threshold and the gate ‘opens’ – letting the audio through.
Gates often have fewer controls than compressors. Some gates have many controls, but almost all have the following:
- Threshold – This sets the level below which the audio is muted. When the input audio is quieter than this level, the sound will be muted. When the input audio is louder than this level, the sound will pass through.
- Attack time – This sets the time for the gate to change from closed to open. Usually this should be as fast as possible, but sometimes this can result in a sharp click or unnatural sound when the gate opens. Increasing the attack time results in a softer, smoother sound.
- Release time – This sets the time for the gate to change from open to closed. Setting this correctly is important for instruments that have a natural decay (such as acoustic guitars or drums). Often the decay can still be heard ‘under’ the background noise, and closing the gate too fast can unnaturally cut off the end of the instrument’s decay. In these cases, the background noise is preventing the threshold from being any lower. Increasing the release time will give the instrument’s decay more time to fully die out before the gate is closed.
Expanders are gentler versions of gates. Instead of muting the audio, they simply reduce the volume. This often sounds more natural and gentle than a gate because the background noise doesn’t come in and out as dramatically. Expanders usually have an extra control that gates don’t – ratio. This sets the degree by which the volume is reduced when the input audio falls below the threshold. Expanders can be more useful for mixes that need to retain a natural ambience – especially acoustic and folk music.
Like compression, don’t assume that since you’ve got a gate or expander that you must use it! Unlike compression, I’d recommend not even trying it for most tracks. Only try it if you have a track that has noticeable background noise that is distracting in between the instrument playing. This can be more noticeable if the track is being compressed, because a compressor can often turn up the background noise in between the instrument playing. If possible, apply the gate before the compressor.
The necessity for gates and expanders is greatly reduced these days because most recording and mixing equipment produces very little background noise and it’s usually easy to record in a quiet enough location.
One exception to this is high-gain guitar amps. The high gain and distortion greatly increases the level of the background noise – sometimes this background noise is almost as loud as the guitar itself. In these cases a gate or expander can be very useful in cleaning up the audio track.