Kim Lajoie's blog

The importance of physical proximity

by Kim Lajoie on March 11, 2015

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Let’s talk about being close with your artist. Like, really close. Like in the same room together.

I recently had a couple of interesting experiences.

One of my previous artists approached me to produce her next release. We’d worked together before, and it’s been one of the best working relationships I’d had with an artist. The songs were great, she was clear in her creative direction and was exceptionally pleased with my work (that included arranging and performing all the non-vocal parts). With these new songs, she wanted to try giving me her demo and reference tracks and letting me develop the songs without her attendance. While I normally don’t do that kind of thing, we agreed to do it. If producing remotely was going to work with any artist, it was going to work with her.

Well, it didn’t take long to get bogged down. There are some kinds of conversations that are very easy to have in person but almost impossible to have in writing. Discussions about creative direction is almost always like this. It’s not something that can be communicated in a one-directional way. We have to request clarification. We have to test each other’s understanding. We have to play audio examples (and sometimes sing or play along). We have to try out different ideas and then talk about them.

The second interesting experience was an unrelated discussion I had with a friend of mine who is also a producer and mix engineer. He mentioned that he doesn’t allow his client to attend postproduction – including vocal comping, mixing and mastering. Everyone’s got their own preferences, but it caused me to reflect on my own approach. I wouldn’t dream of comping a vocal or mixing an artist’s song without including him/her in the process. Every singer I work with has opinions about which parts of each take they want to use. Every artist I work with has opinions about the mix balance. Having them there as I work ensures that they can voice their opinions (and we can discuss them if necessary) as I’m working. It means we can get it right the first time (I almost never get revision requests).

Doing that work on my own seems like a really good way to waste everyone’s time going back and forth with revisions. Or a really good way to leave the artist unsatisfied with a product they’d be happier with if they’d been part of the process.

Producing and engineering isn’t a dark art. It’s not magic. It’s having the right tools and expertise.

The more involved the artist is, the better result they’ll get.

-Kim.

P.S. If you disagree with that last statement, you’re grossly underestimating your artist’s ability to learn about and appreciate the production process. Of course, not everyone’s an expert. And I’ve had my fair share of dumb requests from artists who didn’t know better. But part of my job is to educate and inform artists to help them make better creative decisions.

How not to be a producer

by Kim Lajoie on February 14, 2015

So, I came across this gem last night. And isn’t it just amazing. This is an excellent example of how not to be a producer.

The producer and the singer are meant to be collaborating on writing a new song and demonstrate Ableton Push. They hadn’t met each other prior to the session, and they hadn’t prepared anything beforehand. So, they’re both being put on the spot, and we get to watch the creative process.

So far so interesting.

Except this guy is meant to be a producer. He’s introduced as a ‘professional producer’. Not ‘some guy who makes beats’. He’s a producer. And yet:

  • He doesn’t discuss the creative direction of the track with the singer – even basics like tempo, vibe, instrumentation, etc. He just goes ahead and builds a track that he likes.
  • He starts the session with twenty minutes of no musical communication or collaboration. The singer uses that time to start writing some lyrics, but she’s essentially on her own for those twenty minutes. During this time he gets stuck into subtle adjustments (such as parallel compression, groove nudging, effect automation).
  • Even when vocal recording begins, there’s still almost no collaboration – He doesn’t provide feedback on her lyrics, melody or vocal performance. Nor does he invite feedback from her about the instrumental part. They don’t contribute to each other’s creative work.

If he were ‘just’ a musician, it’d still be pretty disappointing. Can you imagine writing a song with a guitarist, and he spends the first twenty minutes fiddling with his pickup/amp settings? And then he says he’s come up with three chords and asks you what ideas you came up with? Sounds like amateur hour.

But he’s more than a musician. He’s a producer. The title ‘producer’ has many meanings, but ultimately it’s someone who has much more responsibility than a musician in making a recording happen. The producer is running the show. And in this video, he certainly is running the show. He’s just doing a pretty poor job of it.

If you’re a producer, your priority should be enhancing the creative output of your artists and musicians. Find out what creative direction they have in mind – really try to understand their taste and style, work with them. Capture the lightning – try to work as fast as they do, minimise the time they spend waiting around. Raise them to new heights – use your skills and experience to improve their songwriting and performance (while also being appropriately sensitive).

-Kim.

Always remember the emotional connection

by Kim Lajoie on February 9, 2015

Why do you make music?

It’s probably not the fame and fortune (well, at least not the fortune). It’s not the stable income or cosy retirement. I hope it’s not because your parents told you to do it.

I’ll bet you’re making music because you love it. You love music, and creating your own music is a logical extension of expressing that love.

But what does that mean – to ‘love’ music? In this context, what is love? It’s not the love you have for another human being – a partner, a parent, a sibling, a child.

Music is a different kind of love. It resonates with us. When we hear music we love, we feel something amazing. It’s not easy to describe, and not everyone feels it. But chances are if you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about.

Of course, music isn’t all feelings. We connect with music on an intellectual level too. As creators ourselves, we are constantly dissecting and analysing the music we listen to. We are trying to understand how someone else made their music so great so we can figure out how to replicate it. Or we’re trying to understand how someone else made their music so terrible so we can figure out how to avoid it. As creators ourselves, we probably connect with music more intellectually than most people. So much so that it’s sometimes easy to lose perspective and get lost in the mechanics of making music.

It’s important to always remember the emotional connection. Remember how good it feels to connect with music! It’s glorious – don’t ever lose that feeling!

And don’t let your audience lose that feeling either.

-Kim.

If it doesn’t change you, is it worth doing?

by Kim Lajoie on February 8, 2015

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So, I thought I couldn’t edit my performances after I’d recorded guitar into Maschine. Well, I spent a bit of time with it and it turns out I was wrong. Maschine, being a groove sampler, can slice a recording (such as a loop) and assign each slice to its own pad. And thus I can change the timing of each slice. How about that?

More interestingly, spreading a guitar performance onto pads one-note-per-pad opens up some interesting remixing/rearranging options. Obviously, rearranging notes/slices is nothing new. What’s different is how easy it is to go from a four-bar guitar melody to making a new performance of the old performance. And furthermore, the instrument/interface has no inherent pitch – 4×4 drum pads aren’t like playing a keyboard or guitar where there’s an inherent expectation that certain notes correspond to certain pitches. After more than 25 years of black-and-whites under my fingertips, this is twisting my mind in very interesting ways.

And that’s the point, really.

Thinking about new ways of composing and performing is exactly what I’d hope to get from a new music project. My more aggressive self would assert that if a project doesn’t change you, it isn’t worth doing. I suppose that’s true if you embark on new projects in order to develop your skills and experience. I certainly do. In fact, it’s exactly what I need. A month ago, I wrote that I felt the least excited about music as I’d ever been. This has certainly cured that.

I’m sitting in the most capable studio I’ve ever had, available to me 24/7, with a mature workflow for turning musical ideas into vibrational reality. And I learned that what drives me isn’t the act of creating. I thought it was. But it’s the self-development. It’s exploring new ideas. It’s twisting my mind. It’s feeling inspired.

What does this mean for you? Anyone can get stuck in a rut. Anyone can go through a quiet patch. You need to understand what drive you, what pushes you forward. You need to understand what excites you. Maybe what intimidates you. Don’t shy away – lean in. Lean in and see what happens. If the worst case scenario doesn’t make your palms sweat, then jump right in.

A note about gear: Yes, I got just as excited as anyone else about the cool stuff at NAMM. But none of that stuff solves any problems that I had. And it probably doesn’t solve any problems you have either. There’s a bit more to this – All the gear that excited me was gear that already worked in the way I was used to working. That is, it would give me more of what I already have. Perhaps it would allow me to do more, but in the same way I’d already been doing things. If I’d bought new gear last month, I would have chosen it based on how it would fit into my existing workflow. Whereas what I needed was to explore a new workflow. I would choose gear that doesn’t change my way of doing things.

And if it doesn’t change me, I think it’s probably not worth doing.

-Kim.

Updated personal website

by Kim Lajoie on January 31, 2015

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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.

Dem feels.

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.

Human connection.

-Kim.

Dynamic EQ

by Kim Lajoie on January 26, 2015

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.

-Kim.

Three ways to critique your music (or: how to shake up your subjectivity)

by Kim Lajoie on January 23, 2015

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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.

-Kim.

Multiband compression

by Kim Lajoie on January 12, 2015

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.

-Kim.

Making good progress on the electronica/metal and the book

by Kim Lajoie on January 11, 2015

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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.

-Kim.

This year has led me to an interesting place

by Kim Lajoie on December 31, 2014

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.

-Kim.

 

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