Here's another top star with a very simple set up, showing off a new, old toy. The Roland MC 303 groove box. Those were very popular back in the day. Late 90s, I'm talking about not vintage 80s.
Anyhow, as usual it's the producer not the gear. However it's not to say you should be working w/ the dodgiest equipment.
When I see pics like this from top producers I stop worrying about acoustic treatment and other extras that just aren't needed.
FYI these Roland groove boxes were criticized because they were very heavy on using preset patterns and sounds. I don't think there was any sampling ability and it was hard to record your own stuff. I was also very new to production when these came out, but they were really popular.
Same for the old Korg Electribes. I never owned one. I should have been on an MPC back in the day. Big fan of the sampling workflow versus a keyboard workflow.
First off, shout out to Graham over at Recording Revolution pointing out some of this in his "plugin sweet spot" video, which you can only get as a subscriber to his site.
When I watched the video I was like "Damn that makes sense and it's exactly how a DJ mixer works." And if you never used a DJ Mixer, no worries they're pretty easy to understand.
So here's what I have for you in this post.
Want to improve your mixing so your productions sound big, crisp, and clear? I'd think so. Then you need to understand gain-staging.
What the heck is gain staging?
Basically it's making sure audio is controlled so that noise and distortion is not introduced. You can think of it as steps in the process where audio levels are brought down or boosted. Most people using DAW's today don't realize they need to pull levels down - A LOT.
Most recordings are too hot. Most audio in sample packs are also recorded too hot.
Why? Because every one thinks louder is better. If you buy a sample pack and the samples aren't loud enough, then they must be weak, and if they are weak they are whack.
"Well so what? I can just lower them by pulling the fader down in Pro Tools yo!"
Technically you can, but it's just not that simple.
You see, when you pull the fader down in Live (or your DAW) you're just adjusting the volume of that track. Like the volume you as the producer would hear. It's exactly like the fader on a DJ mixer. The fader in your DAW, no matter if it's Ableton, Protools, Logic or Studio One only controls the listening volume. It does not control the level hitting the fader.
And that's exactly the same as a DJ mixer. The fader controls what the audience hears. The gain or trim knob can be adjusted to increase or decrease the amount of volume BEFORE it hits the fader. For example songs are mastered at different levels, so you can use the trim knob to even them out. Keep in mind that trim/gain knobs control the level before they hit the fader.
So why is this important?
Because tracks in your DAW like the one below are too loud. My kick is peaking at -2dB. If this were an analog console that would be OK but since it's digital we have to bring it down. What we want is to bring the level down to an ideal range before the signal is fed into say a compressor or the first plugin in your chain, perhaps an all in one channel strip. So what is the ideal range? -12 to -18dB. That's way lower than I ever thought.
This is the short of it...
"If you take the sound with the highest peak levels and set it so that it peaks at between -12 and -18dBFS, you shouldn't run into problems with plug-ins or summing on the mix bus."
When you start mixing (if you're smart about your time this is a separate stage from say creating and arranging) you need to insert a trim plugin and pull the signal down to the ideal range before you adjust levels and insert plugins.
Some people think that modern DAWs offer near limitless headroom because of 32 bit float. Because of that there's no reason to worry about clipping channels and if your master fader is too hot, one can just pull it down.
So I figured I'd check in with a pro.
Here's what Nicky Howard, owner of The Fat Mastering had to say.
"Eric, you’ve hit the nail on the head. It should be basic knowledge that channel processing takes place before the level meters, you should therefore start with a signal that's not overly-hot into your processing (Signal>Processing>Level).
Red you’re dead, not very often something sounds good when driven hard in the digital domain. On the opposite side - when driving some analogue gear hard it can take on a whole new, very often pleasing sound. 32-bit floating point does offer allot more headroom & margin for error when exporting, however if you’re using this as a crutch to stop everything maxing out, it’s probably time to go back to the mix."
2 Reasons to Use Trim or Gain Plugins - aka Utility in Ableton Live
These days plugins are great, but they don't do as well as analog gear does with hot signals. And again, most tracks (samples, audio rendered from synths or VSTs) prior to mixing are too loud/hot. Digital plugins and DAWs can't handle the heat like their analog counterparts. Basically they distort or cause noise - especially ones by known developers that emulate analogue gear - Slate, Waves, and UAD.
The other reason is that you free up headroom on your master fader. When you send a track off to mastering you have to leave room for your engineer to work. And pulling down that master fader is not the way to do it.
If you want your mixes to sound open, clear, and dynamic you have to start with appropriate levels. Keep in mind that trim/gain knobs are standard on DJ mixers they are NOT standard on the channels in your DAW. So what you have to do is insert a gain/trim plugin before you start mixing and adding plugins.
I shared this tip in more detail with a course member and this is part of an email he sent:
"I really liked the tip the start with -12 / -18 db in ableton. My mixes are a lot clearer now! i also tried landr. and i think it is great. I played my tracks at a gig last weekend and they where sounding loud en equal to beatport releases!"
And yeah I do think that when you're starting out and don't yet have a go to mastering engineer Landr is a great tool to use while you perfect your mix and "car check" prior to sending the final mix to a human professional.
Lowering your input gain on tracks to the ideal range will help your mixes and your final masters.
Here's where you want to be (this is a kick drum track)
Notice that in Ableton, you have to expand the channel horizontally to see the numbers vertically. By default Ableton does not show that so go ahead and widen those mixing channels and insert the stock "Utility" plugin. If you're not using Ableton Live I'm sure there's an equivalent in your DAW.
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Some feedback below.
Check this post by CVS.
OK so I'm not here to endorse Mashine, yes I'm a fan but no reason to repeat what CVS said above in his post. The kicker for me, is what "Albert Candy" wrote about the swing/groove.
And CVS relying saying he didn't even know what it is.
Do I think CVS is lying? No, but who knows. The point is that swing or no swing won't make or break your track. It's just a subtle effect that the old Akai Samplers did really well. But again, it won't make or break a track.
I found it kind of amazing that Barclay didn't know what it is. He's got some soul so it's entirely feasible that however he programs drums already has enough swing and groove built it.
I love examples of how you can be great but not need to know what every bell and whistle does, be it Maschine, Ableton, Reason, Synths etc.
Till Next Time.
His tracks are amazing, his set up is simple AF. And he uses Acid Loops which is an ancient program. I'd love for someone to interview him about this because I'm curious how he does so much and has such big tracks with such a modest set up.
I see this a lot in forums. Someone in the early stages is like "I'm new what should I do?"
And a common answer is to watch tons of tutorials. There was a point in time where there was no internet and people just had to start tinkering and figuring stuff out. Like just tray and do it. No instruction no nothing.
Not all tutorials are bad, I've seen some good ones and paid for others. My main issue with tutorials is that its easy to go tutorial-ing away down a rabbit hole watching video after video of random techniques.
Any sort of school or professional course has a natural sequence and flow to it. You know 101, 202, 303 and with free online tutorials there's nothing stopping a beginner from watching advanced stuff they are not ready for yet.
Also there's no quality control. Anyone can upload a video online.
And lastly, most videos just talk about tactics and techniques. Stuff that's nice to know, may help your workflow a little but at the end of the day they won't make or break your track, won't help you finish a track, and won't help you make your own music sound original and unique.
I know this stuff is interesting to talk about and watch. It makes the user feel kinda good and productive for watching and it's easy for the creators to make it. So that's sort of a vicious cycle.
If you truly want to make your own tracks that stand out, forget about free tutorials. The only free ones you should watch are free versions of paid tutorials in order to try before you buy. People value what they pay for. When you pay for something be it software, a premium tutorial, or sample pack you're saying to yourself, I'm plunking down say $30 and I'm going to get the most out of this."
You're also limiting your choices which is huge in this digital world which seems infinite.
People who mindlessly flitter from one free thing to the next seldom finish anything and if they do I doubt it's good. You don't need a library of 400 tutorials, every sample pack known to man, and a library of thousands of plugins. The opposite is someone who pays for a handful of tutorials, packs and VSTs. This person commits to learning things and getting the most out of what they purchased. They've limited there choices for plugins - they know how to use native plugins and know why they bought a 3rd party one and how to use it. One only needs a handful of tools for the job.
What you need in the early stages is to learn how to get kick, bass, and drum sounds that fit your genre working together nicely. This doesn't mean you need to create them, you can do this with 1 quality sample pack.
Layer the kicks if needed and find a bass part that works. This could mean finding a sample and chopping it to your liking.
Way easier said than done of course. And then you'll need to learn how to process the kick and bass part to glue them together and give the low end extra punch and thickness as needed.
The kick and bass is the foundation of a track and the hardest thing to nail down - you'll also want to be sure your low end sounds translates well from your set up/studio to the car and other sets of speakers.
Working on your low end never ends - however getting the basics right is the first step towards completing your first track.
If you're a beginner this is your starting point - this is the thing to focus on.
I'm going to take a guess and say that the number one thing that holds people back with their music is that the don't continue at it because they don't "feel like it." Maybe that's mood, energy or time, but you can still move forward if you want to.
Though music is a very creative thing, you won't be or feel creative all the time. So just because you're "not feeling it" doesn't mean you should do nothing (although sometimes a short break is necessary).
Yes, it can definitely seem daunting to look at a blank screen and expect music to come out, after a long day at work at a job you may or may not like. So don't do that. Don't sit there in front of your computer "trying to make music."
Do something else..
There's tons of things you can do to progress.
Make some samples. If you have some vinyl and a turntable this is a rather thoughtless. The most thinking you'll do is choosing a record to sample. And that's it. Just start recording some vinyl samples - you can organize them later. Have fun with this for now.
If you don't have a turntable, chop slices out of your favorite tracks. Do not be sampling from YouTube, I assume people here are not bottom feeders who pirate music. Make samples from your own digital library then.
You could learn how to program a synth.
You could watch a tutorial on mixing, EQ, or compression.
Learn some music theory, some theory, it's not necessary to learn all the scales and chords in all keys. Pick one scale and learn the notes and chords.
A Minor is used a lot and it's all the white keys, no sharps and flats.
You could dissect a track and study the arrangement. This will require some mental muscle, but it's worth it. Listen to one of your favorite tracks, dissect each 16 bar section. What's happening in the low end, what is the intro like, what sound effects are used. Be very detailed. Jot it down on paper, even better if you make a template with dummy midi-clips in your DAW.
There's are all nice things many of which are not terribly hard.
Lastly if you're not feeling creative then work on finishing. Finishing is a different mindset than creating. Give yourself a deadline and do it.
If you have your 8 bar idea or loop that sounds "hot," then pick one thing to do that will take it towards being a complete song - work on arranging it and nothing else.
No mix tweaks, no adding parts, no automation. Just arrange it how you like.
One of the best things you can do is work in 25 minute short bursts. Set a timer, or get a kitchen timer.
This is a great habit - focusing your attention on 1 thing for 25 minutes.
Think of production like exercise. You won't always feel like doing it, but you must do it anyway if you want the end results. And like exercise rest days and taking a week off here or there is very important.