December 26, 2012

10 Tips and Tricks for Starting and Finishing Tracks

So it’s the holidays, and you finally have that week coming up that you’ve been saying you’d spend in the studio. It’s time to finally drop that opus in your head, or at least figure out how some of your new toys work. On the other hand, what if you get in the studio and hit a brick wall, or just end up chucking unfinished file after unfinished file on the hard drive? It happens to everyone. Sometimes just the pressure of having the time we always wish we did causes us to choke in the studio, only to be filled with inspiration on the drive back to work at the end of vacation. I’ve stared this form of writer’s block down more than once. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at forcing myself out of the rough spots, and today I am going to share a few tips and tricks on how to generate ideas and finish off tracks in Ableton Live. Naturally, a lot of these tricks will work in any DAW, but since Ableton is my weapon of choice, a few may be Ableton specific. Let’s get to it.

Let's get you from here...

1. Set up a template with all of your go to instruments and typical effects sends at the ready:

Depending on how you work, this can mean a number of different things. Maybe your entire output consists of three to seven favorite bass, pad and lead presets in various plugins. If you’re a hardware person, you might tend to use External Device profiles that need MIDI settings and I/O adjustments to get everything routed the right way. I personally use 5-7 hardware synths and Native Instruments Maschine in just about everything I do. My startup template in Ableton contains my three favorites, a Roland Gaia SH-01, Arturia MiniBrute and Moog Slim Phatty alongside an instance of Maschine called up with favorite kick, snare, clap and hat samples already loaded. I also already have these main drums in Maschine routed to separate outputs and have these labeled. I have two basic Aux sends configured, one with a simple ping pong delay and the other with a reverb set to short decay with a compressor behind it to boost the effect. Both send effects are set to 100% wet.

As you expand your studio, your template will expand as well. There’s nothing wrong with that and there’s no reason you can’t back up your old one should you decide that your golden age was in the previous starting template and you want to go back. I even have a second startup template that I use on my non-studio laptop that allows me to quickly sketch ideas from the road. It is identical to the first one except that it has Massive and an FM-8 where my hardware synths from home are. (Though of late, any writing away from home typically starts and ends on Maschine, which I then import to the main studio comp and deal with when I get back home if I don’t simply re-record everything.) The overall benefit of the template process is not to let that beat or melody in my head when I sit down slip away while I adjust settings and hunt for plugins trying to get a track up and running.

The only warning I will add in is this: If you lose hours of your day trying to imagine your template, then you’re wasting your time and probably over thinking it. There is no “wrong” template, it’s simply a matter of having your go to tricks and tools at hand as fast as possible.

2. Include Latency Adjustments In Your External Device Profiles:

Speaking of templates, in Ableton Live and a number of DAWs you can build presets for the purpose of bringing outside instruments into a project. In other words, it is quite easy to set up a preset for your USB ready and old school MIDI synths alike. One thing that I have found makes this even more efficient is to go ahead and adjust the hardware latency here to reflect whatever RAM balancing acts I have going on in my master audio preferences dialogue. I have built templates for each synth made to compensate depending on whether I am running at 256 or 512 sample latency modes. I suppose if I was feeling like I needed the power I could try for a 1024, but I have yet to reach that level of need within my system. Typically, for that matter, by the time a project is running with 1024 samples of buffering, I am in mixing mode, not tracking.

If you’ve never adjusted for latency, you probably find yourself doing a lot of freezing and audio quantizing to keep audio in time with other elements of your project. The quickest way to do this I have found is to balance out the ms of delay in the main audio preferences dialogue and then make a clip for whatever synth you are using with a single looping note of any sound with immediate attack. You can either record these results to an adjacent audio track or repeatedly freeze the external instrument track. When looking at the waveform in the case of either, adjust the latency control at the bottom of the external instruments plugin until you get the sample locked to the first beat. Assuming all instruments are getting in at the same speed, this may be a number you can apply to every other external instrument. It functions that way in my rig, but I wouldn’t be shocked if there were some factors present in other studios that I don’t have to deal with.

At any rate, I find it quite easy to get running quickly with a template for each external instrument in my rig off to the left with latency already adjusted. It’s a simple thing, but preserves a drag and drop convenience (AKA the ease of plugins) that helps keep my hardware a joy to work with rather than being added labor in my workflow.

3. Build Sounds As You Go:

Many people are quite happy with presets and may well be happy to call up their favorites from the get go as mentioned above, but I tend to like to work each track I do with sounds built to work together. This is as opposed to hunting for things that sound good together. Let’s face it, subtractive synthesis is a fairly simple process. I find that, so long as I am working with a fairly straightforward synth, things gel a lot faster when I just pick a synth and throw together a sound I like, then pick the next synth and build something complementary. This might not be ideal for people who like to be inspired by presets and let things happen. I use the process of building new things each track as a means of keeping each track distinct and unique, even if all my sounds have similarly simple origins.

Simplicity of sound design is key here as well. I think a lot of young sound designers get hung up on invisible critics who might come say they are doing it wrong, but the basic sounds in most popular music are not terribly complex. Great electro bass sounds are often as simple as a saw and square wave blended together with some aggressive application of filters and overdrive. Fast attacks and long sustains in place, the only remaining decisions are where to place the filter, whether to add life to the sound with a bit of envelope control applied to the filter and whether or not to let the sound ring out a bit with some decay or sustain. Sub oscillators can be added in, waves can be slightly detuned for added depth, etc. etc. depending on the synth you are using and the complexity of its mod matrix, but over all the sound design process can be initially very simple. The majority of modern processing happens on the other side of note entry and involves effects and editing. Granted you may want to add a bit of wobble in toggling LFOs to run to filters, amplitude and pitch sections, as well as mod wheel control. Either way, these are all accomplished simply.

Building sounds as you go like this can not only give you a palette of sounds that work together quickly, but also gives you an opportunity to define your own sound almost by accident. Work habits prevailing like they do, you will often develop methodologies that give you a “sound” that becomes your own. Meanwhile, constantly fudging around with the synth settings can result in happy accidents and discoveries that add to confidence in both sound design and production. The simplicity of it all can be refreshing. There’s nothing wrong with having your favorite presets, but i have always fund this to be a great way to get to know my hardware and software, as well as make them all sound like they are built to be together.

4. Commit Early and Often:

If I had to rank these, I would probably put this one in the number one position. It is very easy to kill a track with over thinking. With freeze-able tracks and plugins, it is very easy to accidentally bore oneself to death with a track while going back to things too much and adjusting nuances of all the effects and instruments at our disposal. Music creation doesn’t necessarily happen all at once, and we might not make perfect decisions right off the bat when in the midst of the creative process. Yet, when were things actually done perfectly? The imperfections of the process are what now gives old records a “classic” sound. The way people deal with an issue in the tracking phase, the way other parts get recorded, is all a part of the process. I find that I get things done when I get something about where I need to and then move on. I find that tracks die on the vine when they keep going back and tweaking that filter, or adjusting the waveform, or whatever. To deal with the problem in my own studio, I have a freeze it and move on contingency. This is something I have reinforced by having only two analog mono synths and one analog modeling poly synth. Example: Once I get things going, I have a pad, a bass and a lead I can work between. I can take a little time and get a cool interaction happening between these instruments and a beat, but eventually I am going to want to re-use one of these three synths. (Yes, I also have some other synths, but they are FM synths and old ROM type synths, so I usually have a few things I specifically use from them. I keep the analogs and the modeler front and center because they are the ones I can make new sounds on with speed and ease.) When that happens, I freeze the one I am ready to re-use, often just freeing the first three all at once and isolating that interaction.

I will now attempt to counter the potential naysayers on the caveats of freezing these things and calling them good to go: Yes, I might want to go back into the synth later and automate a filter sweep or something like that. Typically I will do this phase of my work in session mode on live and build a few clips with automations in place. As for final arrangement editing, I prefer to drop in an auto filter over a few tracks routed to a bus. I reserve a lot of the filter trickery on the synth for stuff I am doing with envelopes, LFOs and mod wheels in the initial melody writing. Longer form filter sweeps are something I like to automate in the arrangement, and usually over a mix group for more pronounced effects. If I must, I can return to the unfrozen clip and make these changes at a later stage. Truthfully, though, I prefer getting things frozen and converted to audio clips for chopping and other modern editing techniques. I worked with MIDI in the old ways for a long time. There was a time when getting things converted to audio as easily as we can nowadays was a dream or involved scissors and reels of tapes, or bouncing to a sampler. I regard being able to get this stuff into an editable form like this a luxury. It is also more conducive to modern sounds, which are typically mixtures of this above method (which can also easily apply to plugins for the same reasons.) As far as “what if I want to double a melody or just reach a point where I hate the sound,” this is why even when I start doing destructive flattening, I will usually alt drag my basic MIDI clips to a dead track marked “JIC” (just in case), but when I am in a hurry I just don’t care, and figure I can play it again if I have to. People have been re-tracking for years, it isn’t really all that hard.

The end result of this method is getting things “done” to a point that the debate when running into issues later on becomes a challenge of whether or not to re-track or use a little creative ingenuity to work around it. These challenges remind me of experiences of working around a singer’s rhythm habits, or a bassist with a few habits that throw off the home demo I brought to rehearsal.  The heart of collaboration having always been working with people doing things differently than I might have, reaching a point where an old part needs some kind of chop up or forces me to play a new one a certain way gives me an opportunity to do something I hadn’t predicted along my orderly procession to completing a project. If nothing else, it keeps me interested and I finish the track one way or another. Even if I end up going back later on and redoing the whole thing because I realize deep into the work that I’d like to take it from the top and change things, that second leg comes faster for being informed by the previous process. This might not work for everyone, but I find being a bit quick and dirty about things feels a bit more rock and roll, and keeps me from being trapped by pencil lines of automations before the final arrangement phase, which is when one typically has some surety about what they are doing and sees the end clearly.

5. Build Sounds during Down Time:

Now, I know I just suggested building your sounds as you go, but it can never hurt to have a few starting players at the ready. I like to build out pad sounds when I am not recording as they can often be the more complex items in a track I make. I like to use staged envelopes and different attacks on different oscillators for the sake of giving pads some depth and texture. This process can often slow up recording a bit more than toggling a bit of glide into otherwise basic lead and bass sounds, so I do a lot of pad building when I am not in the mood to record.

If you’ve read much from me before, you are becoming aware that I am a proud and unashamed World of Warcraft player. One thing about Warcraft is that there is some waiting involved, whether one is queueing for battlegrounds, dungeons, or waiting for that 40 man raid to find some more healers. Sometimes you just end up waiting because one of the players in your group has to pee, or their baby explodes or something.  My desk is laid out so that I have my synths one tier above my mouse and keyboard. Typically, I take all these sitting still opportunities while waiting on this or that to tweak on pads. Sometimes I get so distracted I miss whatever I was waiting for, but I also have designed a number of my goto pad, bass and lead sounds that start tracks while killing time this way.

I realize not everyone plays WoW, but we do have a lot of things on our computers that aren’t music, like Facebook, shopping, or reading certain audio blogs. I find that having a few pieces of synth gear around to turn these times into relaxed but productive moments is not only a positive way to keep an evening from being a waste, but also can lead me to shut down things and follow the inspiration of a new sound into some inspired writing and recording. here.

6. Print Your Effects Sends:

The obvious reason to use effects sends is to be able to save processing overhead. Using one reverb for multiple channel as opposed to three or four as insert effects is a smart thing to do. A slightly less obvious advantage is that shared effects, be they delays, reverbs, modulations etc., can help glue sounds together and create a sense that these disparate objects have more in common with musicians in a room than tracks being fed into a computer.

Something that might not have occurred to you at all is that these effects are providing a single output of completely wet signals of all the instruments being fed into them. If you are running out of processing overhead, you can always print (bounce to audio) the results of these effects as their own track and begin working with new effects with the freed up processing power. Another benefit of doing this is that you now have the ability to surgically edit out unwanted tails and echoes that overstay their welcome. Not only is this often an easier way to deal with problems like these than editing automation of what usually amounts to more than one parameter, this is far easier on the CPU than said automation.

One of the coolest advantages of using this method is that those entirely wet signals of signals coming and going, echoing and trailing off can often be edited into entirely new abstract ideas that might even inspire a new section of the project in progress, or serve as a cool drop. With a few timing tweaks, that odd delay can quickly become a new rhythm. In some cases, when the gods are smiling upon you, the printed effect may even prove to be more interesting than the dry track  ever was, leaving you to delete the original and keep those cool edits you just did on your way to “clever studio rat nirvana.” Suddenly you’ve gone from a routine procedure to one of those wild and crazy edits that had you scratching your head when you heard another artist do the same thing.

7. Sample Yourself:

Now that you have all these finalized beats, frozen melodies and printed effects sends, you’ve built up quite a stack of your own audio. Some of the things you heard were actually making you think of other things you could do with them, and you’ve been looking for some cool ways to link tracks together in your album sequence. What’s the next logical step? Sample yourself. It’s the one form of sampling that can NEVER have any risk of legal repercussions. A more interesting effect is that bringing melodic motifs from one song to another can take a series of tracks and suddenly elevate them to concept album status. This was a common thing among house greats like 808 State and Orbital back in the day, and reappears with a bit more manipulation and style with artists like Com Truise nowadays. It can also be a very obvious path to a signature sound. While you might not want to use the same beat in every song, if you have a groove that would also be exactly what the current project needs, why not grab it and bring it in?

Taken a step further, the self sampling can benefit from ReCycle treatment. By ReCycle I mean chopping and slicing in the style of the now classic phrase sampling method originally introduced by Propellerhead’s software package by that name. Ableton’s Sampler supports doing this in a variety ways, from increments of time to transient based sampling. Simpler has it’s own slicing option for non-suite owners. Once your original audio is sliced and spread over a MIDI keyboard, you can then remix your own work on the fly by altering midi clips or making altogether new patterns from the old audio. In some cases, it can be good to do this to beats within the original project just to add a little power to the transients, or add some exciting filtering to. All that said, there’s a lot of fun processing and idea generation possible from self sampling, and it can be used to speed up your workflow or lend a cool processed sound to original work that needs a more borrowed source edge. If nothing else, it’s worth an afternoon of playing with. You never know what you might discover.

8. Don’t Let the Loop Sit For Too Long:

As I mentioned before, I often begin idea generation working in Ableton Live’s “session” mode. While session mode is a great place to throw tings at the wall and see what sticks, it is also a dangerous place to loop things so long you stop liking them. A very good idea can become lifeless as it loops indefinitely. A trap a lot of artists fall into is not being able to step back from the loop and think about the arrangement of the song it is meant to become. A very common method of electronic music writing though, is to build up a loop “where the action is” and then begin the adding and subtracting of elements that creates the skeleton of the track.

I am a firm believer in the starting where the action is method, but I am an even firmer believer in getting the arrangement together before the song dies. Depending on how I am approaching a given song, I tend to do one of two things:

1) I build the main loop, stack things on it to a certain point, then copy one to three of the clips appearing in the first set of loops. Now I replace these empty clips in the next row with melodic variations or different beats, or try to take the song in a different direction in a relative key or something like that. I repeat this process a few more times and then start taking different clips from each row and mixing them together, find what I want, and then start bouncing things down to the arrangement view in sequence. From here I can tailor builds, breaks, any new automations and effects I want to bring in, etc.

2) If I have a simpler idea, or if I can’t see beyond the initial melodies, but know there is something to them, I stop at the first row, turn to arrangement view, and using the elements I do have, record them into an arrangement, bringing things in and out and building a basic skeleton. Once the elements are laid out start to finish, I can begin similar tailoring, but also dress up the sparser arrangement with elegant transitions and longer form melodies that weren’t as apparent in the previously shorter repeating loops.

One way or another, it is a lot easier to identify what a song is missing from start to finish once it has a start and a finish. The bottom line is that loops are loops, but an arrangement sets the project on a faster track to completion. While I like the session view, there is a lot to be said for the linear view of your own work. You can see the shape of the song here, where clips on a grid can quickly start to look a bit too mechanical. Whether the methods I listed above take off for you or not, the most important thing is to get out of sketch mode and into finalizing mode while an idea is fresh. It is all too easy to lose the inspiration that started a track, and when you have those moments, you want to capitalize on them.

9. Reverse It:

It sounds trite, and a case can even be made that it’s overdone… but seriously, when in doubt, reverse it. Great whooshing sounds before the big snare hit? It’s probably just the snare hit reversed, and the reverse builds intensity to the actual hit. A reversed kick in the right place makes things sound like vinyl is in play. Reversing the entirety of that last beat of a song can be the perfect fill before introducing a new segment, or just to add a little life to repeating the same bar again after the fact. One of the biggest reasons I encourage converting all that midi and plugin stuff going on in the track to audio as soon as possible is to that you can get to the business of doing chops and repeats and reverses in the edit sooner, as that’s where the fun starts and the final product starts to take shape. Reverse vocals, guitars, synths, drums, samples… your cat… reverse everything. Whole phrases backwards might just lead you to the next melody the song needs. I’m not saying to play the whole song backwards, but it might not hurt to see what it sounds like. You can undo anything you do, right? So what can it hurt to try?

10. Kick Your Influences Out of the Studio:

We owe everything to our influences as artists. They got us into this thing when they inspired us to do it. The very act of imitating them on our first instruments gave us the chops and the know how to begin having thoughts about making our own music. You have to take the good with the bad with most things, though, and influences are no different. At some point, a popular tip in beginner’s guides and recording books of recent years popped up:

“Throw your favorite track, or a track that is similar to what you are going for, up on your speakers.”

I think an important note that was left out was: “but don’t forget that that thing is mastered. Don’t get too hung up on getting everything exactly like that or you will slowly go insane.” I’m not saying that referencing trcks isn’t a good idea. I’m certainly not saying influences are a bad thing. I think if an artist is still searching for that validating scribble that let’s them go on shopping and dreaming, by all means, an influential track can be a guide post for getting that first arrangement together. After a point, however, the influences can become a ghost, lurking around your studio. The ghost asks reasonable questions, but it often asks them when the track still has no shape.

The Ghost: “Why doesn’t that kick drum sound like it can destroy every dance floor in the known universe?”

You: “Well, I was going to scrape together the rest of my elements and come dress the kick once I had my flow together…”

The Ghost: “No killer kick, no killer track.”

You will now mess with the trick until the track either dies on the vine or simply was never more than a kick that wasn’t amazing. The end result is a lot of unfinished scribbles with high expectations. I think that coming to understand your favorite artists’ methods is an invaluable tool for your music. Not only can it help you define the methods by which ou will attain your own “sound,” but you will often find that these tricks that sound like they required an arm of processing or some elaborate analog gear chain are typically simple EQ methods and ways of delegating space in the mix etc. etc. I even think there is merit to testing tracks on your system to set fidelity/structure/melodic targets on what you’d like to see in your own work. However, a certain destructive amount of inviting the influences to lunge about in the studio is an odd sort of endless “prayer at the feet of the masters.” You can’t fumble through an idea casually if you are constantly holding it up against other songs. If you start over thinking it, you are going to start realizing some of tose melodies in your head/ coming out of your fingers owe a little thanks to some of those influences. When over considered, this realization will either rattle your confidence, or lead to outright theft. The innocent theft tends to work out better. Once the mix is mostly done, all the parts are in place, and the song has its own life; that little melody you got from the attic of your mind seems more influenced than stolen. In fact, with all the other things you did to support it and edit it over the duration of your creative proces, it more than likely became yours.

The main point here is that influences should be relied on for positives, not as an alternate means of negative self-assessment. I entertain my influences, and am auditioning potential new influences daily. I just don’t always do it in the studio. I do it while running, driving, or knocking out office tasks. I do it while writing these little blogs. Since I started keeping the relationship with my influences casual, we get along a lot better.

Happy Tracking

While the tips above are, in no way, a complete guide to recording, I hope they serve as a start to a good list of methodologies for working and pitfalls to avoid in any studio where productivity needs a boost. These little tidbits have certainly served me well over the years. Now take those new goodies you got this year and head into the studio! Good luck in there!