June 26, 2012

Music Programming Methods – Part 2

In the first part of this series, I talked about the confusion new users might experience when encountering the wealth of options available to the modern producer and how best to approach building their own sound. It is certainly a formidable amount of information to walk in on, and this series is here to (hopefully) give you some hints as to what might be the best method for crafting your own personal sound. If nothing else, I hope it will be kind of a “where we’re at/ where you can go” for the budding producer.

If you didn’t check out the first piece, now might be a good time to go back and look it over. Meanwhile, today we are going to start with programming in the more traditional method, which is treating your DAW like a hardware sequencer and using automation and more traditional sequencing approaches for building your masterpieces.

Kicking It Old School

What does that mean? Well, I am being casual about referring to a set up where you are using a sequencer and multitrack interface to run an arsenal of outboard synths. In this arrangement, no matter what DAW package you use (instead of our imaginary hardware sequencer), operations are going to be fairly similar. The biggest difference you will face with anything that requires you to call up patches at the beginning of a song or to even change patches within a single track, is that you will need to set your program changes. These will call up the patch that you use at the beginning of the song, change them through out the song and generally serve as a great housekeeping technique for keeping multiple gear pieces in line. Those of us coming from the olden times are typically familiar with this, but one thing to know is that opening bars of the song should allow a bar or so for the program changes to take to prevent weird patch changing artifacts at the song open. Beyond this, the biggest difference between DAWs here will be how and where program changes are called. Ableton takes a little adjusting where Logic is more natively prepared for the task, so on and so forth.

After setting your program changes (though these may change throughout the songbuilding process), you will move to obvious tasks like note entry (real time or step sequenced.) Depending on whether or not you have a drum machine and how it receives midi, you may be syncing program changes for pattern playback or simply handling note entry as you would with the synthesizers and samplers in your arsenal. If you have outboard effects processors, more program changes await as well. Did I say program changes already?

Now we come to automation. Automation is going to be directly effected by the features built into your hardware. Older synths may or may not be velocity sensitive. Even in the cases where they are velocity sensitive, the degree to which they respond to the velocity programming being sent from your DAW can vary to a shocking degree. In some cases, all your devices can be adjusted so that they share a similar velocity curve; but in a lot of cases this will be a frustrating process that fills you with a dark, brooding rage. After this there are a number of features that may or may not send and receive MIDI data. For example, I have a number of older rack mount synths that do not allow me to record filter adjustments, but my modern analog and digital synths have almost every single top level sound design function capable of sending and receiving MIDI data. That said, I can easily grab, let’s say, a parameter on my Slim Phatty, spin a knob and activate a MIDI data track in the sequencer that corresponds to that function. Once that automation path is visible in whatever DAW I am using, I can either visually or manually edit how it behaves over time.

Automation Curves in Logic

Since we (theoretically) have a roomful of synthesizers in this old school layout, we can move around to and from each synth tweaking things and entering notes. Most DAW packages can make organizing this process simpler through creating either templates or presets that help you just drop in the module of your choice with your premapped controls ready to draw. I like having a master controller that can reach around the studio rather than getting up to do every little thing. With these things said- the truth is, we aren’t really rolling old school at all. This is more of a “classic, with benefits.” For example, I have a Novation Impulse 61 that I use for the task of controlling all of my older hardware units as well as my VSTis. I then, depending on whether I am using Logic or Ableton, have a series of profiles built that I have already configured to access each synth. In logic I already have all my patches set to call up by name (going back to program changes.) The long and short of it is that things in my studio are a lot easier than they used to be in the old days. However, getting here took some serious summer days spent tweaking and copying patch names over. The way I figure, it’s either write everything down in a notebook and track patch numbers in every direction, or take the time to do all that labeling. I chose option B. I won’t tell you how to live your life… this time.

While I am affectionately treating this method as operating in an “old school” format, the truth is that we could work the same way with an entirely VSTi driven studio. There are advantages to this. One is that you won’t have to do all of that labeling I just went on about. The other is that you don’t have to worry about routing midi cables/signals, calling up programming changes or any of the other tasks involved in running a hardware based studio. The disadvantages are subjective in most cases. The most subjective relies upon whether or not you buy into my logic that outboards often sound better or at least occupy more of a unique space within the mix. I can’t say enough how much of a difference I notice in the way a track sounds after I put it through my mixers and preamps and all that other good stuff. However, if you don’t buy into that, (and yes, I do use the hell out of some VSTis depending on the project or speed at which I am trying to work) The possibly less subjective disadvantage is that sometimes you might have to do a bit of mapping for top level control. With programs like Novation’s Automap around, even this task has become simpler in recent years. There’s also the very easy to operate mapping within Ableton Live that makes it a pretty simple task as well. A far less subjective disadvantage is that of straining the old CPU. The only other disadvantage I can think of after that is that you don’t get NEARLY as many cool flashy lights in the studio; and that’s half of what got me started building my crazy ivory tower. What’s a studio pissing contest without cool shots of banks upon banks of LEDs looking retro, modern, and somewhere between the two?

A modern balance.

So What’s So Old School About All This?

It’s really a philosophy geared towards maintaining flexibility til the last possible second. The caveat here is that you might not make decisions as fast as you would in a more slap it around, cut, paste and edit til it hurts method. In the case of using real hardware or mapping VSTis to hardware controllers, you have some options that aren’t just geared towards endless studio tweaks, but also to live performance. If you’ve been watching the gossip side of the internet, you have probably seen Deadmau5 talking about “glorified button pushers.” While this is a whole other debate, his setup is a great place to show the old school and tweakable in action. While he has a lot of pre-rendered elements in play, he also has sequences playing back on hardware synths that allow him to grab and tweak bass sounds and other odd gadgets on the fly. It doesn’t make for total spontaneity, but it gives him something to do up there besides watch his homework make kids dance. Deadmau5 is also sending SMPTE up there. Once upon a time, before we had our sweet automatically synced audio kicking along in the program by our sequences, this was the only way to play recorded audio back. Then we eventually got the ability to record a track of MIDI time code onto our ADATs and other digital multitrack formats. For the record, as I understand it, Deadmau5 is actually sending the SMPTE for the benefit of lighting, but that’s a whole other thing.

Deadmau5 Setup

The point here is that, in addition to some hands on interactions, working in this method does open a lot of doors for accessing hardware old and new. At best, the approach I am taking to “old school” is hybridized for the sake of referencing what most of us own. Were you using an MPC or an old Micro Composer or something even older, the Old School reference would be far more truthful. It would also be slightly harder to wrangle, but is fun in its own way.

So What Exactly is the “New” Method?

Believe it or not, the newer methods that have come about recently are more reliant upon audio than MIDI. There is a beautiful simplicity to the cut and paste methods that have been being deployed by a lot of Hip Hop, Dubstep, Trance and House artists alike. These methods have been ushered along by the visual working methods made so simple in the context of the modern DAW. Cutting and pasting isn’t new in and of itself either. It is very similar to old cutting and splicing methods used by artists who would edit things by cutting tape and looping things. The great advantage of the modern method is that there is no degradation in the process and no razor blades are involved… at least not any real ones.

The way this method works is so much easier to explain: Let’s say you have the same mish mash of hardware and VSTi synths and drum machines lying around. Rather than getting hung up on automation or even sequencing, you can simply play by hand, program a quick loop, record a friend down the hall on a saxophone, or even just grab loops from a bin on your hard drive. A common method for a lot of EDM producers is to just keep their collection of favorite hits, kicks, claps etc. close to hand and drag and drop them into the timeline. Line things up where they want to see them and then just loop and edit to their hearts’ content.

Working in this method, it is entirely possible for a budding producer to find the sounds they like in a Loopmasters library and live off of them. The argument can be made that one loses the ability to customize sound beyond a certain point, but this method is far more reliant upon effects processing and editing. It is also a great way for the turntablist turned producer to take their juggling and trainspotting to the next level. The editing is where the fun and most unique parts of operating in this method come it. A lot of the stuttering styles common to modern sounds find their footing here. With audio laid out across the timeline and all the hits lined up, it takes no time at all to grab all of your tracks at once and create massive stutter effects, punch holes in the sound or route everything but the kitchen sink through a massive effects send. A fun thing to do is alternate between processing things individually and en masse to see the differing levels of impact that happens working within this method. One of my favorite artists who works like this is the Mancunian master of mellow instrumental hip hop known as Mr. Scruff. Scruff does everything from sample himself banging a stapler in the hallway from a snare to dropping a single note from his Moog into the track and re-pitching it to get his bass lines together. This may all seem crazy, but these different processing methods often yield entirely different results. The artifacts of re-pitching, while not necessarily as fast as just playing the notes, might just give your sound that re-purposed edge you are looking for. The sound of the stapler down the hall just might be the greatest snare you ever had with the right amount of reverb and compression.

Never, Always, Probably Don’t Exercise Ethics While You Work

The bottom line is that working in this quick and dirty way, you can grab anything you can get ahold of the audio for and exploit it for your purposes. I’m not advocating any copyright violations, but only because I would never admit to doing such a thing publicly lest it end up with my own tracks being scrutinized for just that sort of material. That said, I am not not telling you to not necessarily possibly grab your favorite snare out of a recent hit track and find that perfect unmasked kick from some other track. I certainly am not not not maybe telling you that this might be the best way to avoid agonizing over what samples to layer to get that sound you can’t get out of your head.  I’m damn sure not saying to just grab anything you see and go willy nilly all over the place cutting and retuning things til it all sounds amazing. On the other hand, I might totally be saying that and just making the whole last passage confusing in case someone comes knocking on my door and asking where my ethics are when I tell people to go crazy and steal micro slices of anything that sounds right. Which, as I said before, I would never, totally, probably, certainly not do. If you don’t quite follow me, but are encouraged to get creative about stealing, we are totally on the same page. As far as it goes, these waters are murky at best, but if you keep your carving to the micro side sampling for the most part, you can at least defend what you did as art. Don’t come back complaining to me if you get caught because you got greedy. I am approaching this like the CIA: I’ll send you out there and tell you the world is your oyster here, but I will also completely deny any knowledge of your existence. Paper shredders are at the ready. Get your own lawyer.

Class Dismissed

Honestly, at this point I want to stop and think about where we are.  Also, this piece is getting a bit lengthy. That said, we’ll call it a week on the matter of programming and reconvene next week. I cannot overemphasize that these two methods I have given a quick overview of today are not the only ways to do what you do and completely overlook organic methods, step and modular based sequencing or the new methods that are revealing themselves as programs like Traktor make their own great leaps forward. However, they are the two general practices for getting things together within a lot of formats. They are also not mutually exclusive. To that end, we will return next week and discuss hybridized methodologies that are commonly practiced to take advantage of the strengths each working method offers. We’ll also talk about (gasp) just recording things in real time, at least as much as it is practical to our little microcosm of electronic and sampled music. Until then, get your sequencer out, mess with things. Try stuff. Pretty much the only thing I hope this series does for you is to free you from working in fear that you are somehow doing it wrong. Even with these ways detailed, there are still more methods of chopping and screwing up the musical universe we haven’t even touched. If you have any questions forming, let’s ask them now so I can cover them in the next part. Until then, do something amazing, or at least have some fun.