Honing your production skills before releasing music

For music producers, specifically those interested in releasing music, gratification is one of the most complex topics to address. From the moment you complete your first track, it becomes all about showing it to people to see how they react and to get feedback. As you progress with producing, more of your tracks will start to feel like they are release- worthy. But the real question we have to ask is not if they are release-worthy, but are they timeless?

When you start making music and don’t have the concepts or skills honed enough to do it in a streamlined manner, it’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself “hating” the tracks you make; spending so much time on them means you will dislike them by the time they are “done”. I’m of the opinion that most tracks are never 100% complete—every time you work on a project you’ll notice more details that you feel you can fix and this can turn into a never-ending spiral.

For me personally, my road has been an interesting one—the first tracks I ever made were sent to labels and eventually released, but every time I visit Beatport (or other platforms) are and listen to those tracks, I ask myself if they are what I want people to think about when they hear my artistic name. Each release comes with a technical improvement, and the process is noticeable, but…what if those tracks were never released? 

On the upside, I guarantee 100% that if it were not for those tracks and releases, I wouldn’t have been able to connect with so many people around the genre and network into making contacts—this proved very useful and worthy in the long-run. On the downside, every musician wishes to have his/her very best out there, as it’s our business card, it’s what people will remember the most when they talk about you.

I read the other day about an artist who practiced and honed his skills for seven years straight without even considering releasing a track before that, as he felt his music was not up to the standards that he wanted to put out in the world. So, what then, is the correct road? If I could do it all over again, I would most definitely not have released the first and most technically lacking tracks I ever made. It’s all very personal, but if you can, I would follow that artist’s advice—it removes the stress of wanting to sound in a specific manner for a specific label, and you’ll find your own sound in a more creative way. Make music for the sake of it, not because you have a deadline. Deadlines will come in the future, I can guarantee it.

My honest conclusion is that with production—same as any skill—you have to put in the hours of work and have the patience to accept that it will be slow. As one of my teachers once told me, there is no shortcut to training your ears. Having some perspective now and a short career of 5 years in music production, I believe our best tools are groups like the coaching corner we all know and love; in groups like these you can show your music to the world, get focused feedback, and continue to improve and grow as an artist around like-minded people without it being too permanent.

The key is knowing and accepting that you will always be able to do better. There’s no rush and you will eventually be thankful for having waited to have your very best out there. On the other hand if you don’t want to wait, make sure you have some feedback from artists you know have a deep technical background as they will give you the best tips to improve your tracks.

SEE ALSO : Taking breaks from music-making

Using MIDI controllers in the studio

People often say that MIDI controllers are mostly for performing live, but they can also be your studio’s most useful tool. My advice to people who want to invest in gear—especially those who aren’t happy working only on a computer and dream of having tons of synths (modular and such)—is to start with investing in a controller first.

There are multiple ways to use MIDI controllers; let me share some of my favourite techniques with you and give you advice to easily replicate them.

Controllers for performing in studio

One trend I’ve been seeing in the last few months is producers sharing how they perform their songs in-studio as a way to demonstrate all the possibilities found within a single loop. This is not new—many people like to take moments from live recordings and edit them into a song, but it’s becoming clear that after years and years of music that has been edited to have every single damn detail fixed, artists are realizing that this clinical approach to producing makes a track cold, soulless, robotic, and not organic sounding and in the end. If you’re still touching up details at version 76 of your song, this means you’ve probably heard it about 200 times—no one will ever listen to your track that many times. My advice is to leave some mistakes in the track, and let it have a raw side to it. Moodymann’s music, for example, is praised and in-demand because his super raw approach makes electronic feel very organic and real. Performing your music in studio to create this type of feeling is pretty simple; it’s super fun and it inspires new ideas too.

For in-studio jams, I recommend the Novation LaunchXL which has a combination of knobs and sliders, plus it’s a control surface; depending on where you are on the screen, it can adapt itself. For instance, with the “devices” button pressed, you can control the effects on a specific channel and switch the knobs to control the on-screen parameters.

When I make a new song using a MIDI controller, I’ll start by using a good loop. Then I’ll use my controller to quickly play on the different mixes I can create with that loop. Sometimes, for example, I want to try the main idea at different volumes (75%/50%/25%), or at different filter levels. Some sounds feel completely different and sound better when you filter them at 75%. Generally, I put on these effects on each of my loops: a 3-band EQ, filter, delay, utility (gain), and an LFO.

Next, I’ll record myself playing with the loop for a good 20 minutes so that I have very long stems of each loop. Then when it comes to arranging, I’ll pick out the best parts.

TIP: I sometimes like to freeze stem tracks to remove all effects and have raw material I can’t totally go back and fix endlessly.

Controllers for sound design

I find that the fun part of sound design involving human gestures comes from replicating oscillations a LFO can’t really do. It’s one thing to assign a parameter to a LFO for movement, but if you do it manually, there’s nothing quite like it—but the best part is to combine the best of both automated and human-created movements.

I use a programmed LFO for super fast modulation that I can’t do physically with my fingers, and then adjust it to the song’s rhythm or melody—just mild adjustments usually. For instance, you could have super fast modulation for a resonance parameter with an LFO or with Live’s version 10.1’s curves design, then with your controller, control the frequency parameter to give it a more organic feel.

Recently, I’ve been really enjoying a complementary modular ensemble for Live called Signal by Isotonik; it allows you to build your own signal flow to go a bit beyond the usual modules that you’ll get in Max for Live. Where I find Signal to be a huge win is when it’s paired with PUSH, which is by far the best controller you can get for sound design. PUSH gives you quick access to the different parameters of your tools, and if you make macros it becomes even more organized.

Controllers for arrangements

Using MIDI controllers in arrangements is, to me, where the most fun can come from; using them can completely change the idea of a song.

For instance, if your song has a 3-note motif that has the same velocity across the board, I love to modulate the volume of the 3 notes into different levels. When we speak, all the words we use in a sentence have different levels and tones. For example, if you say to someone “don’t touch that!”, depending on the intonation of any particular word, it can change the emphasis of what you’re saying. “DON’T touch that!” would be very different from “don’t touch THAT!” This same philosophy can apply to a 3-note melody; each note is a word and you can decide on which ones to emphasize and how a certain emphasis fits in your song’s main phrase or motif.

If you assign a knob or fader on your controller to the volume of the melody, you can also control the amplitude of each note. You can do this for the entire song, or you can copy the best takes and apply their movement to the entire song. I find that there will be a slight difference in modulation depending on if you use a knob or fader; each seem to have a different curve—when I play with each, they turn out differently (but perhaps that’s just me). Explore and see for yourself!

TIP: Using motorized faders can be a a huge game changer. Check out the Behringer X-Touch Compact.

Another aspect of controllers that people don’t often consider are foot pedals. If you’re the type who taps your foot while making music, you could perhaps take advantage of your twitching by applying that to a specific parameter. Check the Yamaha FC4A. Use it with PUSH and then you have a strong arsenal of options.

SEE ALSO : Equipment Needed to Make Music – Gear vs. Experience vs. Monitoring

Creating a kick drum from scratch with an analog feel

There’s no doubt that a kick is an important part of electronic music, and in the last few years, it seems like more and more people are creating kick drums from scratch—analog or digital—with lots of depth. The difference between 90s production and modern production is the increased quality of sound systems around the world. I’ve heard that Funktion One sound systems are appearing more and more at festivals and in clubs. I myself have had to adjust my mastering approach to maximize the sound precision on these higher quality systems. In the end, the results are great for everyone. However, one thing I’ve noticed is how 90s music sounds a bit less warm and less open on these newer systems, which isn’t a big deal, but we’re missing out a bit on quality here, as this music is from a different era.

That said, really well designed kicks are so addictive on a nice setup that a kick alone can keep a crowd happy for a while…I’m exaggerating a bit but this isn’t totally false either.

Do you need to buy a drum machine, synthesizer, or something fancy to make beautiful kicks?

Yes and no. There’s something exciting about having gear, but gear can also be a trap. You’ll use it for a while, but eventually you’ll find that a lot of hardware always produces the same type of sound(s). Do you want want the same kick in 99% of your productions? Personally, I don’t—I want variation. This is one of the reasons why I see people buying and selling gear over and over, looking for something they’ll never really find. I like to have a hybrid setup where I get the best of both hardware and software; but trust me, I get a lot from software alone.

I’m a firm believer that one can do a lot with a little. There are a wide variety of cheap options; you can invest a tiny bit without going out to buy expensive machines.

My main kick sounds come from a few machines—I’d advise you to try to find out which machines make kicks you love. I’ve always loved the TR-808 by Roland, which is a classic, but I also love what Jomox does, as well as the Tanzbar (MFB). Once you learn about a few machines you like, the easiest approach is to find some high-quality samples of them; there are many options and sample packs online.

Creating a kick drum from scratch

If you Google “TR-808 free samples” for example, you’ll find websites like this one and this one sharing samples for free. Search yourself and you’ll find some pretty solid 808 kicks. I know this sounds silly, but samples are the fastest way to get things rolling. In a previous post I explained that great kicks are often layered. The best way to build great kicks using a simple setup is to start with a base of high quality samples. They need to be in 24b minimum, not compressed, but at -3dB.

When it comes to making an analog sounding kick “in-the-box” (no hardware), I’d say you should try following these steps:

  1. Start with the low end made by an oscillator. In this case, you can use Ableton’s Operator; you can use the sine wave or use the user section it to color things a little bit with harmonics
  2. Layer a quality sample over it. I’d high pass samples to let the purity of the oscillator take over the low end. It’s also important to align the phasing to get a punchier sound.
  3. Use a transient from a modular sound recording. Snip out a transient or small slice of an audio recording to layer on your kick (I’ll discuss this again later and provide some free downloads!).
  4. Compress the whole thing with an analog modeled compressor to glue everything together. In this case, we can use the Glue Compressor from Ableton.
  5. Add saturation on the sound to provide some finishing warmth. You can use Ableton’s drive, but I’ve never really been a big fan of it. It’ll do the job though if you’re on a budget.

The best way to work with samples like this is to use the Ableton (or whatever DAW you use) drum rack so you can take advantage of the sampler’s modulation system and envelopes.

In Ableton Live 10.1, one feature I really like is the suggested/preset envelopes you can use on any sample. These settings come handy when modeling percussive sounds out of any samples you want. I love to create textures and then slice them quickly using this feature. Returning to the transient recording approach I mentioned previously—this type of slicing is particularly practical when I grab long recordings from my modular synth; there are tiny sounds I can turn into a snare or hat. Like I said, combining the best of all of these sounds will result in a full range kick.

Download sample transients recorded Pheek:

[download id=”39268″]

If you want to invest, below are some interesting kick plugins I’d recommend:

Raw Kick by Rob Papen. Anything by Papen always is quality and you can’t go wrong. Raw Kick is a no-brainer, it will create something ranging from very clean kicks to dirty, badass ones.

Big Kick. As the name states, this plugin creates “big kicks” and doesn’t disappoint. Even the presets—once tweaked a bit—are pretty impressive and ready to use.

Sasquatch. Another solid kick maker that can make a room shake pretty heavily.

Creating tension in music

Electronic music—oriented for dance-floors—mainly relies on the use of tension to create excitement. I was recently asked how I personally approach tension-building in my work. In this post I’d like to share my point of view on the subject, but before writing this I also spent some time reading articles about tension in music to see how it’s approached by others. To my surprise, I didn’t find anything I could really relate to. Many approaches to creating tension use common, established techniques, and it seems like most of the advice about this topic was for rock-type music. While the techniques I read about are interesting, I firmly believe that you need to understand the reasons behind creating tension in music first, and once you understand them, you might find that things I discuss in this post are still relevant 10 years from now. Personally, I’ve been approaching tension-building in my music the same way for the last 20 years, from a philosophical point of view.

There’s a moment that stands out to me most with regards to my first true understanding of tension in electronic music. I spent the first few years of my DJ career as the opening act. I’d be the minimal dude that plays mellow, heady, trippy stuff, which—at the time in Montreal’s scene—meant opening slots. No complaints here though; this part of my career is when I learned the most about playing live. Opening a show is one of the most misunderstood roles in live music; it’s far more important than most people think.

When people start arriving at a show, the club is empty and there’s already a bit of awkwardness and natural tension mixed in with the audience’s excitement and anticipation. People arrive with expectations, and the opening artist is usually there to set the mood and to build a foundation for what the night will become (which includes not playing too uptempo if the floor is empty). Creating sonic comfort as the opening act is essential.

It’s difficult to create tension if you haven’t yet created a trusting relationship with the people at the event while performing. You’ve probably read many times that the best DJs are the ones that know how to read a crowd—and there’s a reason for this; you have to be aware of the audience’s needs and how to fulfill them, but also of how to create anticipation before addressing those needs: this is tension-building.

Now, it’s important to understand that there are three main tension-building scenarios in music:

  1. Circumstantial. In a given context, some natural tension/excitement might already exist, such as playing your last song before the headliner plays. Those 5 minutes will be naturally more tense as people’s eyes and ears are getting ready for the main act, and the music is supporting this anticipation.
  2. DJ-related. When a DJ knows how to play a track at the right moment and combine it with something else to create an experience, then the music becomes part of a puzzle.
  3. Music-made. This type of tension is created within a song itself, sonically via producing.

When you understand that your music might be heard in these three different contexts, it can give you a better idea of what sort of tension might be best for you personally to create. For instance, perhaps you only want to create music that will rely on the skilled hands of a DJ to really be effective—this doesn’t mean your song is made to be less interesting; skilled DJs search for these kinds of tracks as “tools” for their sets! When someone thinks a song is boring or too “simple”, I’d reply that usually it’s because it’s being listened to out of context, and someone like Villalobos or Hawtin could easily turn a simple track into a bomb by dropping it at the right time. I made an album on my label Climat that was quite experimental, and it was reported that Ricardo played some of the weirdest cuts in the middle of his sets and people would cheer…I doubt many acts can do that with a purely experimental track. That said, music that’s made for DJs to use as a tool has to be very clean from a technical point of view, which means that you need to have your sections very spaced out and have elements that come in repetitively at regular intervals. For example, your 4-bar sections could always end with a snare roll to indicate you’re finishing a section. This organization in your arrangement becomes a track that can be easily layered without confusion, for both the crowd and the artist.

If you think that most of your tracks are for DJs and are meant to be played in clubs, it’s important to test your tracks yourself in a DJ set to see how they go. You’ll want to determine if the tracks are easy to layer or not and to see what you can do with them.

When it comes to creating elements in a track through producing that can create tension, it’s essential to understand that tension rises as an expectation of something to happen (or not). If you write a song so that there’s a specific sound at a specific point every bar, if you have have a bar or two where you leave it out, this can create anticipation and tension. So from a technical point of view, there are some specific tension-producing techniques that can work well when implemented properly:

  • Breakdowns. I’d say that techno between end the of 90s until about 2009 usually had at least one breakdown with “stuff” happening. Breakdowns can include things like cutting the kick out or removing lower frequencies—applied for about 4 bars or so—then a drop would follow. A few years after, people started to get really fed up with this approach, and many producers realized that it was actually more effective not to include a breakdown, and to let the DJs create their own breakdowns by cutting the lows at a moment better suited to their own personal set(s). That said, cutting the lows often still works well.
  • Volume changes. When you introduce a new element into a song, you can either fade it in or simply drop in the sound at 100% volume. A fade will create tension as it the sound becomes louder and louder, while a drop-in is useful to create surprises, which is also a good way to resolve tension. One of the most misused techniques when it comes to volume changes is to have a variation in the volume of an entire section, then having the following section louder. When this is done properly, the contrast is a good way to create an explosion.
  • Decay. Sounds that have their decay increase over time seem bigger and more powerful, especially if you approach changes progressively. Reverb use is also a way of adding decay, and if you add a very large one to short sounds, they’ll become longer, creating tension.
  • From maximal to minimal. Having a lot of sounds happening at the same time and then trimming them down to the essentials will create an “emptiness” that people become familiar; they will anticipate resolution to a “fuller” mix. The density change is something that can be physically felt in a club setting. This is why everyone was using the white noise technique to create excitement for a while; it was a good way to resolve a moment of emptiness.
  • Pitch. Playing with the pitch of a melody or sound is a good head trip, and if you play with it subtly, it can really create uneasiness and tension. Some genres use pitch manipulation in an extreme way by slowly modulating pitch to its highest point, but to me, this technique becomes irritating and predictable after a while.
  • Pattern changes. If you’ve established your groove with a certain pattern and then introduce a hole or change, it will create tension.

Now, is there a particular duration for a tension-building section that might make it work better?

Yes and no. I’m lucky and have had the chance to hear and see many of my songs in a club setting. I’ve had many attempts at tension-building fail, and some succeed. Shorter tension-builders work better than longer ones. Also, keep in mind that some songs will play better if you don’t try to add tension to them at all. I think that 2-bar moments are great for tension-building because it also gives the DJs some time to play within them. If you make your tension-builder too long, you’re making the DJ work hard and potentially fail. Think about tension-building like a sauce—if it’s all premade, you have less room to add your own stuff. Don’t overdo it in your own productions; developing a sense of trust with the DJs who will be playing your work is essential. When people listen to minimal music and say it’s boring, it’s something I take with a grain of salt—perhaps at home in your living room it might be, but in the right context (such as a club), it might be more than enough.

SEE ALSO : Building a great groove

Experimentation in music: how far can you go?

If you’re a regular read of this blog, you know that I encourage people to indulge in experimentation in music and to think “outside-the-box”; to try out new ideas in their music. That said, sometimes it’s difficult to judge how experimental one can get, and to understand the potential downfalls of going too far off into the experimental world. As someone who’s been running a label in which we constantly take risks and avoid shallow trends, I am familiar with the effects of being too experimental.

Recently, I had my friend Stereo_IMG in-studio for a session and he was talking about how hard it is these days to get any attention from labels. We have an EP finished and it seems like wherever we send it, we are not getting very much feedback at all (not even a rejection)—just no information at all. The mixing and sound design are solid, and on paper, to me it seems like there are no technical issues with our work. However, I think that we might be taking some risks that labels might be afraid to embrace.

I got some really interesting insights from an article I read last week about how people deal with novelty. The article discusses how people are attracted to familiarity; humans are more at ease when they can recognize things. According to this article, we look for familiarity in our lives, which explains why routines and rituals are often very popular and have been passed down through generations. We also look for patterns in our lives, and when we decode a series of things that make sense to us, we will even see it as a message—something that we can comprehend; a part of a system we use to learn. No wonder repetition is a good way to get familiar with something!

If we apply these concepts of familiarity to electronic music, it’s fairly simple to see how electronic music is directly linked to this process. Certain genres have recognizable sounds, patterns, and techniques. These patterns aren’t just for DJs who mix, but for people to be able to identify a style. Compared to DJs who mix tracks seamlessly over the course of an evening, top 40 DJs get away with going all over the place without smooth mixing because they’re playing music people can recognize (I’ve never understood the idea of going out to hear music you know, but that’s just me). The commercial music these DJs play is very formulaic; each song differs little from the next. People who are mostly familiar with commercial music are seeking that specific vibe within the boundaries they’re familiar with.

I was at the park over the weekend and there were these two young ladies nearby, drinking, smoking, and listening to Spotify on their phones. They were talking the whole time, never really listening to what was actually playing. They were listening mostly to indie pop; stuff that didn’t feel new and that was very similar to music I heard from other cars driving by. The only time they stopped talking was when Spotify accidentally played a song not in the playlist because it had reach the end. “This is not good”, said the phone owner after hearing just a few seconds of an unexpected track. “Spotify is buggy”, she added, but to my ear, what was now playing was exactly in the same tone and style as the previous song, though she had probably never heard it. Her reaction to “unknown” music was very strong, and it made me smile.

I had played a gig the night before this experience in the park; I had a great time improvising music from material I had prepared. I noticed that people were also talking for the duration of my set, but most people were also dancing, whistling, and cheering. The moments when people would pay more attention to the set were when I’d throw in some weirdness (Pheek TM). These moments of novelty felt like they were suddenly grabbing the audience’s attention. In these moments, I’d also include positive bass-lines and funky percussion to make them feel “safe”. It seems to me like there’s a good ratio to respect when you’re experimenting, and if you don’t overdo it, you can get away with almost anything.

However, I can’t use weirdness and novelty the whole time because then their feelings of familiarity—according to the “mere-exposure effect”—will be ruined. If you over-expose people to something new, they will get bored. This is why in the most exciting sets you reach experimental plateaus where the audience’s minds can wander, but then they’re brought back on track to something familiar. Without the release of the familiar into something unfamiliar and vice-versa, you can’t create this attention-grabbing effect. In other words, “you can’t connect if you’re not divided first.”

This battle between familiarity and discovery affects us “on every level,” Hekkert says—not just our preferences for pictures and songs, but also our preferences for ideas and even people.

My personal conclusion about experimentation is to start by being really aware of whatever style you’re working in. I feel it’s important to really familiarize yourself with the leaders in that style, and then understand the are leaders: why what they do works, and why people like it. One of the reasons why an artist’s peak begins to fade has to do with the theory of over-exposure, after which people’s interest dulls and they will start looking for something new. A good way to remain “interesting”—not only in one song or album, but over years—is to keep yourself on a trajectory; not showing your hand all at once, but instead revealing your novelty in small amounts. Restraint is an important feature of good music that listening to podcasts can help you understand reveal: how do artists distinguish themselves in what they do?

I find that people who often innovate in a very popular ways are people who came from an external community into a new one (say from punk to techno, for example), intentionally or unintentionally adding cross-influences into what they make. To them, this mix of styles sounds new to both themselves and people who are into that particular scene. This was one thing that Petre Inspirescu did so well; he brought his love for classical music into minimal house—and it worked perfectly.

Setting rules for yourself to create “familiarity” for listeners in the style you’re working in, while also searching for what perhaps hasn’t been done within that style, is a great way to determine the amount of novelty you might be able to include in your work. People seem to be put-off by setting rules in creative work, but limitations you impose on yourself give you a creative jump into something more organized. Without these rules, you might end up like Stereo_IMG and myself: creating material that is too “outside-the-box” to fit anywhere.

SEE ALSO : Using Quad Chaos