Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Analog Sounding Vst Synths Pt. 1

So, you've heard lore about the olden days of analog synth richness, or perhaps your favorite producer is rumored to be using analog synthesizers to get that unobtainable sound.  Where does a broke chump like you start?

With a virtual analog vst of course.  Software synths have come a LONG way from the early days, and some vst soft synths can really move air like their older meaty grandpas (especially in the context of a mix).  But which vsts are capable of that low ballsy sound with breathy whispering buzzy highs?

Here is a list that should get you going.  Feel free to comment with additions, especially freeware!

Polykb - amazing sounds.  A lot of soft synths tend to sound similar.  This synth actually really has its own sound.  Really lush spacious pads, and a whole assortment of other unique sounds.  But it uses a dongle.  A dongle, in this day and age!  People can use a crack for free, with no dongle, but XLIS' customers get to pay for it, AND buy/be burdened by a dongle.  It is laughable.  I recommend skipping this one until they come around.  Come on XLIS! I really want to buy this one!

Okay, here is a video by Torely.  This guy is a trip,
if you've never seen him before... let's just say he
is high on life.

Poly-Ana - This synth sounds good.  Bottom line.  It sounds good.  3 oscillators, 3 envelopes, 2 lfo's, and some mad modulation options.  All that is actually meaningless.  It just sounds good.  A little pricey for such a small company.  I like my synths around the $100 mark.  But still.  Just demo it and you might be opening your wallet.

Whatever  you do, don't watch this video!
Trust me, Poly-Ana is WAY better than this.
But a balding guy playing a keytar...
okay, maybe you should watch it.

Curve - This synth is capable of analog sounds, but it also has a lot more going on than that.  Fast envelops, drawable waveforms, an active community with patch sharing, and more than that, this is a hungry company that wants to make incredible music making tools.  They are always updating this thing.  Take the demo for a spin, see what you think.  They just did an Easter discount, and they're always up to satisfy their customers, so check em out.

Check this vid.  I think they've updated this synth
since this was made, but it sounds incredible, and
there are now some modulation options.

Check back in for part 2.  I haven't saved the best for last this time, as all of these sound great and have their own little things that make them special, so you'll just have to try the demos.

Monday, April 18, 2011

My Snare Sucks - Music Production Questions

Quote: MikeCatlin
Im pretty new to producing and just got Logic Pro...now i ve gotten pretty good with everything and making the beats themselves, but my snares just dont have that explosion sound to them..any help?

First, really figure out what you want your snare to sound like, like in the track. There is near infinite variety of good sounding snares, but only a handful that will sound right in a particular track. Keep that in mind when you're working. What should that particular snare sound like? Then work towards that. Knowledge of your tools and general solid production knowledge will help you shape the sound to your liking, once you know what it should sound like.

Second, turn everything else down in the mix.  When producing digitally, 0db is the maximum volume, so the relationship between the volume of all of your elements is of paramount importance. When you turn everything else down, your snare will get explosive.  You can't have everything exploding all the time.

Third, use a parametric eq on the snare's channel, create a peak and sweep it around starting at 1khz on up to around 4 or 5khz. Find where the bite is. Leave that band at that frequency, kill the boost, and gently roll off the frequencies around that point.

Fourth, once you have your snare figured out, start looking at other elements that are sounding at the same time as the snare.  Make sure that other simultaneous sounds don't sit in the same frequency range as the snare.  Now a snare should occupy a broad range of frequencies because noise is a major component of its sound, but there are usually two main sections of a snare, the body, the low end, and the snap, the high end.  Using that parametric eq technique in #3 up there,  find each of these, and clear up the eq space in other instruments that sound at the same time.

When building a track, the kick and snare are usually the foundation  in terms of the beat structure, the tonal relationships in the track,  and the overall volume of all of the various elements, so getting the kick and snare right, and building around them is an excellent way to take your mixing to the next level.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Which Daw Do Professional Producers Use?

Sorry for the general slowness of the posting the past couple of weeks. I've been contracted to produce a loop library for a very interesting and innovative product that I wish I could talk about, but I'm sworn to secrecy! When I can spill the beans, I will spill them all over your hot waiting chests (god I wish some of you were women!).

Okay, which daws do professional producers use? And largely limited to EDM, with an emphasis on dubstep. Please take this with a grain of salt, as this information may be either totally untrue, old and even when correct, it is likely that the artist's sound isn't strictly tied to the daw itself. Then again, it may be. Also, you may see a daw underrepresented in this list only because I either don't have the info, or the daw itself is new.  If you see a producers name listeded under two or more daws, it is because they may use them in conjunction.  Not an unheard of practice.

If you have any relevant info about which daw pro producers use, please put it in the comments and we'll get to the bottom of it.
  1. Ableton Live
    1. Jazzy Jeff
    2. Netsky
    3. Shlohmo
    4. Flying Lotus
    5. Bassnectar
    6. Borgore
    7. EPROM
    8. Current Value
    9. Blawan
    10. Martyn (performance only)
    11. Bok Bok
    12. Samiyam (rumor) 
  2. Cubase
    1. Excison
    2. Mistabishi
    3. Noisia
    4. Distance
    5. Pendulum
    6. Venetian Snares
  3. Fl Studio
    1. Skream
    2. Benga
    3. Dayn
    4. Feed Me
    5. Current Value
    6. Appleblim
    7. Ramadanman/Pearson Sound
    8. Pangaea
    9. Spor
    10. Mount Kimbie
  4. Logic
    1. Funtcase
    2. Skism
    3. CTRL Z
    4. Widdler
    5. Skream
    6. Benga
    7. Artwork
    8. Graphix
    9. Alix Perez
    10. Sabre
    11. Downlink
    12. Reso
    13. Datsik
    14. Torqux
    15. Jack Beats
    16. Joker
    17. Mala
    18. Martyn
    19. Breakage
  5. ProTools
    1. You thought 1 was the loneliest number, try 0!
  6. Reaper
    1. Soon Reaper, soon.
  7. Reason
    1. Funtcase
    2. Stagga
    3. Widdler
    4. Caspa
    5. L-wiz
    6. Fused Forces
    7. Koan Sound
    8. Coki
    9. Current Value
    10. Shackleton
    11. Jakes
  8. Renoise
    1. B-complex
    2. Venetian Snares
    3. Akira Keteshi (suspected!)

Again please remember that this list is for entertainment purposes only, and this is not intended as a factual statement (inside personal joke).  I don't think this should effect anyone's choice in which daw to use.  This is more idle train spotting.

And post in the comments if you've got any info, or if there are any mistakes in this list.

Music Production Questions!

If you have music production related questions, feel free to post them in the comments below. I'll answer them in a new post.

My specialty is Fl Studio, but I can answer questions regarding Ableton Live, Cubase, Reason, and many of the popular vst synths and samplers, as well as fx. Genre is irrelevant.

Bring it!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hardware with Software, Where to Place the Fulcrum in Hybrid Setups.

This post is for intermediate level producers with too much time on their hands. These are my idle musings as I grapple with a decision regarding my production setup.  Of all my posts so far, this may be the least rewarding read, and for that I apologize.  I'll get back on my projected course shortly.

Music production was traditionally based in hardware. But as more and more production moved to software, and the quality of software (and the hardware required to run it) improved, we've come close to the point of parity between the sonic quality of software and hardware.  Close.  For raw quality, high end hardware likely produces a sound deemed better by most trained and untrained ears alike, and even run-of-the-mill hardware still may be preferable to some.  But for raw creative potential, the digital manipulation of sound through software is untouched by pure hardware.  For the sake of argument, let us consider both of these factors as equally counterbalanced.

That leaves us with the paramount consideration: WORKFLOW.  I don't know if workflow has a solid definition as it relates to music production, but I tend to think of workflow simply as the way that you do things.  Not too lofty, indeed, but workflow is extremely important to the results we actually achieve.

For example, I once lived in a house with six different floors (thank you Los Angeles hillside living).  If I was on the top floor, and needed something on the bottom floor, I often didn't make the trip down and back up all those flights of stairs unless the thing was extremely important.  Sounds lazy, right, but after the tenth time you've made the trip that day, it gets old, fast, and excuses are made!   This is the way that workflow impacts music production.  That which is difficult to do, often is not done in the presence of less onerous alternatives.  All devices, both soft and hard, can more easily achieve certain types of results, and it is only natural that we more often produce those types of results when we use that device.

But then there is this:


Ulrich Schnauss
We shouldn't forget that the instrument itself doesn't make the music, it depends on the person, the human, that's actually using it, what comes out of it.  It's not necessarily the machine itself.
(it helps reading that with a giant frontal lobe under a receding hairline with leather pants and a German accent)

Very true Ulrich! which is why I wrote The Mind Versus VST.  Our artwork must be the product of our intention, otherwise it is meaningless to call it ours.  But to deny the impact that our tools have on our artwork denies a manifest reality observable by anyone that has used two different tools to achieve the same result.

I initially started making music with traditional wood and metal musical instruments.  I began to get into a more nuanced sound with fx pedals and outboard fx units.  Then I moved into analog tape to capture those sounds, then into digital tape.  Through this process, no personal computers were involved.  But as technology marched on, the personal computer entered the studio.  At that time I had what is called a hybrid setup.  I had outboard synths, samplers and fx running into a computer.  The computer acted as a mixer with some signal processing capabilities, an arranger, and a tape deck.

Then software like ReBirth, Fruityloops, Hammerhead, and ultimately Reason made software synthesis and sampling accessible to bedroom producers, and the outboard hardware started to fade away.  More recently, I got to the point that I was producing with a laptop, a mouse, and a couple of speakers, that's it!  That is about as minimal and software centered as you can get.  So, it is for this reason that I can say I have experience with this spectrum of different workflows.

And through this experience, I've discovered that the hybrid setup is the most productive and inspirational for me.  A hybrid setup is generally in the middle between hardware and software, and anyone who is working in one or the other exclusively, I really recommend moving towards the center and at least experimenting with the possibilities and new potential workflows or workflow variations afforded by a hybrid setup.

With that said, even within hybrid setups, there is a balance between hardware and software.  You could simply have one external synth and then everything else in software, or you could have an array of synths and samplers, fx and signal processors, running through a mixer and simply record into software.

I have moved around in this hybrid setup range.  Currently I have a few hardware sequencers, two outboard synths, a couple of outboard samplers, an eq, preamp, and compressor as well as a couple of fx, mostly organized through a patchbay and not a mixer (for space and money considerations).  I'll use all or non of these on a production, but the area that has been the most uneasy for me has been the sampler / sequencer box.

My start in electronic music production came with an ASR-X which combined sampling, synthesizing and sequencing in one package.  These boxes and others like them, probably more recognizably the MPC series from Akai, were the foundation of modern pop electronic music (i.e. hip hop!)  I can't say enough about these types of boxes.  Anyone who has never used one should pick one up used and work with it for a while.  These things can be difficult to work with, sample editing, for example, is excruciatingly painful once you've developed facility with a good software audio editor.  Also sample storage on these old boxes is often outdated and strangely expensive. But there is something about working within a single dedicated box that you can touch and pound on to make music that produces uniquely human music, even though the sound is ultimately digital.

Early in my production journey, I stupidly sold the ASR-X, and was lacking a box like this for a long time.  Since then I've owned an ASR-X Pro (which is sitting disassembled on my kitchen table, and likely will remain there until my wife can't take it any longer), an MPC 2500, and an SP-404 SX from Roland.  The MPC was my first experience with Akai's legendary sampler sequencer, and the experience was profound.  Working with the MPC, you can see how the MPC workflow helped shape the sound of what Hip Hop is (or, unfortunately, was).  But I have to say that once you are used to the speed and flexibility of software music production, it is very hard to limit yourself to a box like this.  I could have done it, but didn't feel the economics were right. The MPC's are just too expensive for what they do.  I personally feel this is simply because of the strength of the Akai brand (which appears to be decaying, at least in this sampler/sequencer arena). So, I returned the MPC 2500, and picked up Roland's SP-404 sx.

The economics on this box do make sense for me.  The 404 sx is a simple box.  12 trigger pads, one fx with many types to choose from, and a one track sequencer, and is very affordable, it is portable due to its size and battery powered capabilities.  Whole tracks can be made on it, but I'm not personally happy with the results when I do this.  Further the 404 doesn't properly resample, a cornerstone of my personal workflow.  I  usually use this box.to generate a basic dirty beat which is then sent via audio into the computer to be developed into a fuller song, or I use it discreetly for its sound design capabilities (both slicing and effecting sounds).  I can't recommend this box enough.  It is simple and will fight you for simple things, but through that combat, strange unexpected occurrences will result.

On the other end of the hybrid spectrum, I've also used Korg's padKontrol to trigger software devices.  The padKontrol is a midi controller that produces no sounds of its own, it merely sends midi note messages to sound generators or samplers.  It is set up in a 4 x 4 grid, similar to the MPC's but has a different feel to the pads, though with an enormous amount of sensitivity. (I think the padKontrol is a far superior midi controller to Akai's later MPD line of midi controllers.  The Akai feel is just lost on these midi controllers which is such a shame as the original MPC's are the gold standard for finger drumming.)  It is also great to be able to bang out beats, but then have the full arsenal of sound creation and manipulation afforded by the use of VST's.  The only problem with this is that you still end up with mouse in hand making your music, a condition that many producers, myself included are attempting to leave behind.

I failed to mention that while software is extremely flexible and packs enormous creative potential, the use of software is usually a visual endeavor.  And when we become focused on our visual senses, often our ears take a back seat.  Obviously, this is catastrophic for music production.  Here we encounter another benefit of the dedicated sequencer/sampler type boxes of yesterday, because lcd displays (on models that even had them) were historically very expensive, so small screens were used that could only display a minimal amount of information.  The byproduct of this minimal visual information was a workflow that was centered around actually listening to the music as it was being recorded and played back.  Again, the music produced on these boxes tended to be more body-centric, as the body was solely responsible for its creation.

So it is with these thoughts in mind that I may try out Native Instrument's Maschine.  This is a new iteration in the endless search for the most useful balance between hardware and software.  Maschine is both hardware and software.  Maschine is a hardware midi controller with a traditional 4 x 4 grid, an assortment of buttons to control functionality as well as knobs for data entry and live tweaking.  The software side of Maschine runs on a computer.  One problem with generic midi controllers like the padKontrol is that they are designed merely as a instrument trigger.  You bang the pads and sounds are produced by software.  That means that you will be able to hammer out a beat on the padKontrol's pads, but you'll still end up with mouse in hand working your daw's functions.  Maschine is essentially a daw midi controller.  The daw needs to be played and manipulated in an intuitive non visual way, and Maschine just might be the best solution to this persistent problem.  The nonvisual groove centered production workflow with all the flexibility of software processing.