Tag Archive for: sound design

Saturation Tips and Hacks

After presenting some of my favorite EQs and compressors, it would be silly not to also talk about audio saturation which is complementary tool. There’s not a single project I’ve done in the last 10 years where I haven’t used saturation in one way or another; same with mastering. I often compare it to putting some words in bold in a text, where that effect will do the same thing in a mix: making parts stand out in a way the brain can’t totally understand at first.

What is saturation exactly?

Saturation is essentially a form of soft distortion that gives certain texture to sounds. The simplest way to explain it is to think of how analog processing changes sound; it brings a certain noise it, sometimes very subtly or not. You may use it give warmth or character to the signal being processed, which gives a more aggressive crunch if you exaggerate it. Types of saturation that are most common:

  • Tape emulation: Similar to what was popular in the disco days when they’re send their mixes to a reel to reel, to provide a certain thickness.
  • Tubes: Common in compressors and certain EQs using lamps, they are the absolute reference to warm up synths.
  • Transistor and retro: To emulate an old school feel.
  • Preamp: Often related to guitars and the world of microphones, preamps can be used on anything. They’ve been a tool of excellence for decades to give personality to sound by engineers.
  • Distortion: Pure distortion isn’t always pleasing and appropriate but if you control it properly, it will give beautiful textures and beefiness.

There are multiple situations where you could benefit from saturation in your mixing or sound design in order to alter the character of your sounds.

Pads & synths.

There’s nothing more exciting than rich tones, melodies, and very warm pads. More than often, I see people recording soft synths with no processing whatsoever; they’re really missing out on giving depth to the backbone of their songs. You can for instance simply pass them through a preamp, but my tool of choice for these is absolutely tape emulation (a personal favorite of mine in case you didn’t already know).

How: Start by pushing the saturation to a very high point and make sure it’s more than noticeable. Then adjust the wet/dry to a very low level where you can hear the incoming signal feeling almost clean but have the saturation be mixed in there. I usually find the sweet spot by going “oh, here I can totally notice the saturation” and then lower it by a few notches.

Tool: I’d suggest the Tape from Softubes or RC-20 Retro Color. Both are fantastic to shape your sound with shimmering textures.

One thing I really love is to use multiband saturation to get the most out of your melodies. This way, you can address the lower mids in a way while you bring out harmonics in the higher part of the sound. This can be done with tools such as Ozone 8, Neutron 2, and Melda’s PolySaturator.


Who doesn’t like a dirty, funky bassline? Low end with grit will always bring some excitement to a mix – especially in a club – this is something we’ve heard so many times in hip hop for instance. A very clean sine bass typically from an 808 has a certain warmth, but if you pass it through tape or tubes, it will give a lot of oomph. If you want to try it, I suggest you even try two instances of saturation to see where that goes. It depends of how much you want it distorted. The wet/dry will have to be applied to taste here. The producers of dubstep brought the game here to a new level.

How: Just experiment. Try to go overboard. Really.

Tool: SoundToys’ Little Radiator does marvel on basses as well as its cousin the Decapitator. For something more subtle but still robust, try the Steven Slate Virtual Preamp Collection.


Saturation on percussion will automatically bring an old school feel from breaks that were really popular in the 90’s. The take on that, with Hip Hop (again), was to export the audio to VHS tapes or even tape cassette. The result is pretty badass. Experimenting outside of software is really fun, and I would encourage you to give it a try. One thing I like from doing this is to saturate only the tail and not the transients so that you beef up the overall signal.

How: Duplicate the channel you want to saturate and put saturation on the second one. Using MAX’s envelope follower, map it to the wet/dry of the saturator/exciter. Set the envelope to be flipped so that when a transient is detected, it will duck the knob making sure transient isn’t affected. Melda’s Polysaturator provides that option internally.

Tip: Add reverb and put the saturation after to get really fluffy crispiness.

Tools: Reels by AudioThing, Satin by U-He and Polysaturator once more.


There’s nothing more beautiful than vocals that are lush and full. Treating vocals alone is an art in which I could get lost. I don’t want to get into that too much, but I’d like to invite you a bit of everything to see which one suits you best. Some prefer the tubes but other swear by the tapes. This is where Ozone can be a game changer, especially that you can do multi band processing as well as M/S.

Tip: Apply anything and everything from what’s explained above but start by doubling your vocals which will already do great things.

SEE ALSO : Tips to add movement and life to your songs


Tips on how to pick your EQs and use them (Pt. I)

People often ask me about my opinions on what the best audio plugins are, and there are no doubts that investing in quality EQs and compressors is one of the most important things you can do for both sound design or mixing. You can do pretty amazing things just with EQ and compression, but of course you need to understand your tools to make the best of them. In this post I propose some exercises and tips, as well as covering the main tools I have gathered through the last years and my thoughts on the best EQ plugins.

Types of Equalizers

There are many types of EQs and I believe some are more important than others. It took me a while to understand how to fully use them all and how to select the right one for specific situations. This subject is actually so vast and complex, I could make a series of multiple posts and I wouldn’t get through it. I’ll try to avoid being too technical and will explain them in simple terms so anyone can understand.

The way I approach EQs are based on different actions:

  • Corrective. Sometimes a sound will have part of it that will feel aggressive and annoying. I will do corrective by spotting where where it looks like it’s an issue and then cut. Corrective cuts are usually not too narrow (Ex. Q of 3)
  • Surgical. A resonance in a sound makes your ears hurt and that will need a very narrow cut. (Q of 6-8+).
  • Tonal adjustments. An EQ can be used to make tonal changes such as deciding if you want your track more beefy or more light by either boosting lows or highs.
  • Coloring. Some EQs aren’t transparent and will have a musical touch to the changes it makes. This will add some personality.
  • Valley cuts. The opposite of surgical, where the Q will be make the curve really wide. It makes very subtle changes, somewhat tonal, a bit colored and sometimes a bit corrective. Try it at different points on a sound and see it change without being able to really know what’s happening.

TIP: The human ear will hear a noticeable difference if you cut 3-4dB minimum. If you cut 6dB, it will be quite obvious.

The main types of EQ plugin categories are:

  • Graphic/Fixed Frequencies. Influenced by older models and the first EQ, the frequencies you’d have access to are fixed and won’t be changed. In many of those models, the frequencies are based per octaves but certain companies will have their own way of deciding which ones are used.
  • Parametric. One EQ that is very popular is the Q2 by Fabfilter which allows you to drop a point anywhere and then be able to shape how narrow you want to cut or boost.
  • Shelving/Band. This is a part of the spectrum that will be affected. For example, on DJ mixers, the 3-4 EQ buttons are basically shelves of frequencies that are altered.
  • Dynamic. This one is advanced. You can “order” a point of your EQ to react depending of certain conditions. For example, if you have a recording of a drum, you can order the highs to lower down by 3-4dB if the cymbals hit too loud. Very practical!

TIP: If you love the sound of analog, you might want to dig in Universal Audio’s suite that does emulation of classic pieces of gear. The fidelity of replication is absolutely mind boggling!

Now let’s make some associations regarding which EQ does what:

  • Surgical and valley cuts are mostly done with parametric EQs. This type of EQ will allow you to precisely identify the rogue frequencies and then cut or boost, in the way you want.
  • Corrective EQ can also be done with parametric but with graphical ones too. Sometimes a correction needs precision but sometimes, it can just be a way to realign the curve of the sound which a graphical EQ can do easily.
  • Tonal adjustments. This is done with shelving and band EQ.
  • Coloring. This is basically fixed frequencies, but if you look for analog emulation or EQs that provide a type of saturation, then you’ll also get some coloring and personality.

My favorite EQ plugins

Here are my thoughts on the best EQ plugins  that are precious tools to have in your arsenal. I’ve also included low budget EQs alternatives that are similar.

1. Fabfilter ProQ2 (Surgical, Valley cuts, Corrective, Tonal)

This plugin seems to have found it’s way in many producer’s tool kit mostly because it can pretty much do it all. From complex curves, mastering touch-ups to shelving tones and copying the frequency of a sound to apply it to another… the ways you can use this beast are so numerous that you’ll have to watch a bunch of tutorials to get all the hidden things it can do.

Budget Alternative: TDR Nova GE by Tokyo Dawn

2. Electra by Kush Audio (Shelving EQ, analog replica)

Not so known by the masses but this EQ is an absolute wonder to have on hand. I use it in every single mixes I do and the results are always amazing. A bit of a learning curve to understand as the GUI is a bit weird but even if you’re not sure of what you’re doing, it shapes the sound in a way that makes it pop out and warms it too.

Budget Alternative: RetroQ by PSP

3. BX_Hybrid V2 by Brainworx (Corrective, shelving)

I don’t think there’s any plugin that can do what this can do in terms of results. Not as versatile as the ProQ2 but where this one stands out is for how buttery it cuts in the sound, smoothing things out. When I have people studying mixing with me, I would always require them to buy this one as the very first EQ to have and use.

Budget Alternative: Voxengo Prime EQ

4. Passive EQ by Native Instruments (Shelving, correction, color)

This emulation of the famous Manley Massive-Passive EQ is a bomb EQ. I love to place it on a bus of all my melodic content and then smoothly shape it into something that magically turns organic and warm. It requires a bit of exploration but when you get your hands around it, you’ll always want to use it. I find it quite powerful for sound design as a way to warm up the lows.

5. F6 Floating band dynamic EQ by Waves.

I’m not a big fan of Waves as well as their aggressive tactics for selling but this plugin is a really useful one to have. As described above, with a dynamic EQ, you can tame some frequencies that are randomly happening. The problem with a static EQ is, you’ll be cutting permanently a frequency so if what you’re trying to cut isn’t always there, you might cut something that doesn’t need adjustment. This is why you can have more control with a dynamic EQ. This one is also really easy to use if you’re familiar with the concept and the fact that you can use it in MS makes it really versatile. Not as easy and fancy looking as Fabfilter’s but it does more, in other ways. Wait for the price to fall but you might get it fro either 29$ to 49$ if you’re patient enough.

In the next post, I will go more in detail with my favorite plugins and will also explain certain ways, in details, for how to get the most of them.


The best EQ plugins and various EQ’ing tips (Pt. II) 

My Music Production Methodology Pt. III: Depth and spatial shaping tips

This post about music production methods is an important one. In the group I work with on Facebook, I give feedback to people and I’d say that while for many, the part they strugg le with the most is to nail down a proper mixdown, and for the majority there are issues with the stereo field. I have a bunch of tricks that can help turn a 2D pattern into a 3D realm to get lost in. Let’s start by discussing a few things regarding making music 2D, and then how you can slowly shape it.

One thing that is essential for music to sound clear, loud, and powerful in a club is to have the majority of your sounds “in mono”, or in engineering terms, to have your mids solid. This is why many people will tell that doing a mono test on your mix to see if everything is heard is a good way to know. Why? Because if the sounds are moved randomly around, they might phase with others, which will end up cancelling out once in mono.

While this might sound like voodoo magic if you make music as a hobby, you can drop a tool into your DAW to make the signal mono so you can check. (hint: in Ableton Live, it is the Utility effect that will let you do that)

Ableton’s Utility tool

This is why you want your low end (under 100hz) to be in mono; to make sure there are no conflicts and that it will be sounding fat and strong. Again, in Ableton Live 10, you can activate the “Mono bass” option on the Utility tool.

Why I’m saying this is clear and simple: depth is a fun thing to have on your music but if you go too crazy with it, it might end up being a problem. So, first and foremost, when you program your patterns and music, try starting in mono. Make sure everything is heard and clear.

Once you have created the arrangements and are pretty much done but before you get to mixing, start spreading your sounds around to occupy the space in front of you. You don’t want to have everything in the middle, it will feel narrow and lifeless. There are multiple ways to get this done and it goes a bit beyond than simple panning which might be a bit boring. (Note: many mixes I get have everything in mono!)

Tips to give your mix more space

Mid/Side is a great way to use space in a mix, but is often misunderstood.

Here are a few tips to give you mix space and life, and if you google this topic, you’ll find multiple others too:

  • If the sound/sample is in mono: Try doubling it by duplicating the channel a few times, then pan and experiment. In pop, soul, R&B, the producers often do that and have up to 4 duplicates, spread around and or pitched to different tones to give sounds textures. You can use a VST Doubler to do the same but there’s something exciting about doing it manually. Keep in mind, a clap is actually 4 layers and so on for your percussion. Try to create something wild.
  • Panning around your sounds can do but it will feel bland if you don’t couple it with a quality reverb. Even at very low levels, a reverb will create space around the panned sound. This is why I group percussion into families (ex. all organic, all metals, all wood, etc) then have a reverb per family, not per sound.
  • Use stereo effects: These will be super useful to help things around and for instance an auto-pan will help give life and movement. These include: chorus, delay, phase, flanger and wideners (of course). These should be applied to a sound, not a family. Only one of these effects per song to avoid issues.
  • Quality reverbs: as described above, a quality reverb is a game changer. Stock plugins are never as good as a whole team that work on making something special. For instance, all the plugins from Valhalla are now recognized as some of the best in the industry and for a reason, they sound just as good as some hardware units. Tip Top who make modular synths has licensed their reverb for their z-Dsp 2. If you can, always go for convolution reverb for your music and use only one, in a AUX/Send. So if you really a 3D sounding song, keep in mind that a reverb will do 80% of the job. The rest is about lowering the volume of certain sounds to give the impression they’re further away. Also, filtering out the low can give that impression. Mixed with a quality reverb, you will have a lovely space.
  • MID/Side: This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of mixing because it’s hard to really understand it. Keep it simple, this term refers to how your space is shaped as what you have in front of you is the mid and the sides are located where are the speakers/monitors are. If you misuse the sides too much, it will make your music phase (you’ll hear it in the mono-check). But it’s really interesting to play with the Mid/Side (Aka MS) of your groups to open them, a bit.

Last tip: Low end should always be in mono and I usually make sure that some part of the melody is also, while it can partly be spread around. The main hihat and percussion should also be strong in the mid but then you can have support sound of the same family be spread around to give room.

 SEE ALSO :   The “sous-chef” experience 

The rule of thirds in arrangements and mixing

One of my favorite aspects of music making is to use proportional ratios regularly. While this seems perhaps counter-productive when compared with the artistic side of producing music, I use it to eliminate a bunch of technical roadblocks that emerge in the process of decision making. Because making decisions can sometimes end up in roadblocks, you can use this technique as a general rule that you always refer to whenever you have to.

Let me explain how this rule of thirds can give you wings.

The first time I familiarized myself with this concept was when I used the iPhone grid to take pictures. I had read that a tip to take better pictures was to use that grid to “place” your content. To compose your photos according to the rule of thirds, you must imagine your photo divided into nine equal parts using two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. For example, the square in the middle should have the subject of your picture, so it’s perfectly centered, it is also recommended to have something like a detail where the lines cross.

When I practiced this, I immediately saw a parallel with musical arrangements. For instance, any song will have three distinct sections when it comes to the story line (intro, main section, outro). Where each section meets, there must be a pivot, an element of transition. When I work, I always start by dividing the song into equal thirds, then, I’ll divide again so I have nine sections total. Starting with arrangements, they have equal parts, but this will then change as I dive in details of arrangements; some of the “lines” of the grid will be moved around.

TIP: Use markers in Ableton and give names to each section.

What you want in arrangements, is a good balance between expected and unexpected elements.

Using the rule of thirds helps achieve this balance: while you center the main idea of your song right in the middle of your timeline, you can have an overview of where the listener will sort of expect something to happen. Then you can play with that. Either you give the listener something where they expect it, or move it slightly to create a surprise.

The rule of thirds can also help in a few other aspect of your work:

  • Tonal balance: We covered this topic recently and this means splitting your song’s frequency range in three areas (low, mid, high). You can use a shelving EQ to help you with this or you could re-route your sounds into three busses that are per-band. This will allow you to control the tone using the mixer of your DAW. In this case, by simply splitting in 3 bands, you minimize the work of deciding which tone to take.
  • Sound design: We’ve discussed sound design before but I’d like to pinpoint how you can apply the rule here. For instance, think of how a kick is made. There will be the mid punch of the kick, supported by a bit (or a lot) of sub, then a transient on top. Most of my percussion are layered with three sounds. One will occupy most of the space, another will add add body, and the last one will be adding transients or texture. I also find that shuffling with three sounds often makes it difficult to get bored of a sound. The rule of thirds – where you have sound variations – pretty much always works for me. The question to ask is, is there a balance or is there a dominant?
  • Mixing: When I do a mixdown, I always have multiple categories for my sounds. Part of this is that – since I really don’t want all my sounds to be front forward – I’ll have some that are intentionally low, others in the middle, and the loudest one are the ones that are meant to be right in front of me. It’s very soothing for the ear to have these three areas of sound levels because it help creates dynamic range and creates an acoustic feeling of tangible spacing; putting some sounds in the back will give support to the ones who need to be heard. Just like sound design, if you always keep in mind that you’re layering in thirds, this can give your mixes a lot of depth.
  • 1, 2, PUNCH!  This is a technique that I’ve learned in my theater classes, consisting of creating expectations to then mess with the expectations. Basically, you want to introduce a fun sound, and in the pattern introduce it again later, but at the exact same place, then the listener will expect it to come a third time. This is where you can surprise them by either not playing the sound or by bringing something different. Simple, but very effective.
  • AUX/Sends. This might sound a bit much, but I limit myself to not use more than 3 aux/sends. I find that an overflow of effects will make your song messy and unnecessary busy. One of my starting templates has only three sends by default: reverb, delay, compression (or another sound modulation effect such as chorus).
  • Stereo spectrum. I like to see the placement of my sounds in a grid of 3 x 3 zones. It will go as: right, middle, left then, low middle and high. Some of the main sounds will have to be right in the middle (ex. clap, melody), some in the low-middle (ex, bass) and then some elements that are decorative, around. A healthy mix is sort of shaped like a tree: middle low should be strong with bass/kick, then middle left-right and middle-middle are strong too, then some content in the middle-high, with a little presence in the high left-right. You want to be very careful with the zones of low left or right as this could create phasing issues. You want your low end to be in mono, therefore, centered.

There are other examples, but these are the main ones that come to me!

Important Music Production Principles

As a label manager or as a teacher who regularly gives feedback (join our facebook group if you’re interested to participate!), I’ve realized I don’t listen to music like the average person; I listen for certain music production principles. There are a number of things that will get my attention that most people won’t really notice; I’m listen for a number of principles that make – according to my tastes – music that feels full, mature and deep. Many labels are after music that will sell, but I’m more interested in music that innovates, which to me comes from the design work involved in the song.

Why innovation first? I prefer treading new ground than releasing something vanilla. It might not pay, but the delayed gratification is more powerful and I can attract creative minds, which are my favorite kind of people.

I was reading about visual design and I was pretty interested in how it’s similar to audio production. I’ve compiled some basic music production principles that applies to both the audio and visual spheres.


Balance can be achieved in a variety of ways: from the stereo field being occupied, to the mid/side balance, or the balance between low end vs high end. I like to hear how balance has been designed and exaggerated – the emphasis of a zone that moves towards another. I want to feel the artist is playing with balance, or shows that he can propose balance shift during the whole timeline of his/her song. Balance is to me, the umami of audio, and I want to experience something that feels full.

TIP: In the final stage of arranging, try to check each zone (left/right, mid/side, lows, mids, highs) to see how they relate to each other.


This one is a bit tricky. How do you apply contrast in audio? It can be in how you select your sounds for instance. Perhaps having a number of sounds that have very sharp attack compared to others that are soft. Maybe a contrast in volume, compression, harmonics or dull vs very detailed. As you bring in a number of sounds or melodies, think of how each of them can be different. This is useful as it can broaden up your palette of sounds or have them evolve into something else. One of my favorite contrasts is between textured sounds vs some that are smooth.Another type of contrast that I love to hear is a distinction between bold and subtle on certain elements.

TIP: Try to import two samples at a time that are very different. Ex. 2 claps, one bright and the other fat, then go from one to another to create contrast.


Which element that should grab your attention first? This is, in design, the focal point of your artwork and in audio, putting one sound forward will have the listener engage with it. This is usually in the mid frequencies, right in front of you. It’s rare that your key element will be panned to the right and if so, it will be really confusing to get something there through the entire song. A good way to create a focal point will be to decide what will be in front and what’s in the back.

TIP: Use one main element in mono and EQ the mids up to push it front forward. Group all sounds to be put in the back where you slightly remove mids in mid/side mode.


This one is all over this blog and if you haven’t consulted some of the past articles on how to get more movement in your tracks, I invite you to check some out. Movement is one of the most important parts of music arrangements. Movement is life, nothing less. When music is static, it feels dead, dull, redundant, synthetic in a bad way, and terribly alienating. You need to have your sound move in the space, in the stereo field as well as up and down – there are so many ways to achieve movement.

TIP: EQ, auto-pan, compression, filters are your best friends for movement.


Ideas and hooks always are dependent on a precise pattern. Next time you listen to your favorite song, try to determine the pattern of the song. Sometimes it’s simple, sometimes it’s multiple patterns that are layered. Now, the pattern is more than just the percussion; it’s the order of elements that are also reappearing throughout the song. In techno, there’s a micro pattern (eg. within one bar) that is part of a much bigger pattern. Decoding it is a bit like reading morse code. But one of the key points of patterns, as explained by Miles Davis, is understanding the importance of silence because that’s what creates them.

TIP: When creating a pattern, try adding random additional ideas by using Ableton’s MIDI effect, “Random.” Having a developing pattern can do wonders to the timeline of a very simple song.


This is the perfect follow-up from the pattern principle as they go hand-in-hand but are slightly different. I like to see the rhythm as everything that amplifies the flow of the pattern you created. Groove templates in Ableton are particularly tied to rhythm as well as swing. But importantly, one thing to understand is the transition from section to section, as well as what’s regular vs irregular. You can have a very simple, almost boring pattern but with a great rhythm, you can make it very engaging for the listener. However, this doesn’t work the other way around; a poor rhythm will turn a great pattern to garbage.

TIP: Try to DJ your tracks at different stages of production. You can stretch your idea/concept to 5-6 min and see how it feels, mixed as a DJ. Of course, mix it with something you love the rhythm of and see how yours fits in.


This is the final touch to a song; “making sure all elements feel like they’re working together.”  Sometimes I hear music and I feel there are a few sounds that don’t fit in at all. Perhaps this has happened to you and you’re not sure exactly what it is. Here’s a quick list of things to consider while developing a new idea:

  • Make sure all melodies are in the same scale or in compatible keys.
  • Use the tuner to make sure the most important elements are in key.
  • Always have some sounds that are in the “call/answer” relation with some other.
  • Certain sounds should either be working together or complementing one another (eg. played at same time or shuffling).
  • Use a global swing/groove for main sounds.
  • Stick to just 1-2 reverbs for creating a common space.

Final principle: Make your work understandable, long lasting, and detailed

Here’s a personal motto that I apply to the analysis of my own work:

  1. “Is this song understandable?” If I ask a person to sing it, can he/she relate to one element?
  2. Is this song based on a trend or will it age well?” I like to analyze songs that I still love after 20 years and try to see what I still love about them. I then try to apply concept with my current knowledge. It can be a concept or a technique too.
  3. “Did I cover all details?” The last round of arrangements I do will be to cautiously pass through my song, one bar at a time to see if I am aware of all details, such as volume, tails, attacks, position, etc. If I don’t do that, the song isn’t done.

I hope this helps you to perceive your music differently and create your music more efficiently!

Transient Shaping

In this blog, I’ve already discussed many ways of playing with your track to create new textures and variations and how to keep your sounds interesting. I’d like to discuss another way of colouring your music: transient shaping; something that can completely change the way a track sounds and feels, depending how you shape your sounds.

To experiment with transients, we will need to play with certain features of Ableton Live which can be very powerful. Alternatively, you could also invest in a type of plugin that is in the category of “Transient Shapers”; there are many out there but some of my favorites are the MTransient by Melda Production and Transient Shaper by Softubes. Both offer quality results at a decent price.

Firstly, if you’re not familiar with transients, they usually consist of the beginning of a sound/sample. If you’re familiar with the Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release (ADSR) envelope of the synthesizers, the attack would be generally manipulating the transient. Sometimes its fast and strong, or other times, it’s slow and smooth. For a kick that punches, you want it to be pronounced and snappy. If you’re after that specific feel, then the transient shaper will really be interesting for you. A plugin will allow you to make the transient more apparent or make it quieter; generally you will also be able to control the sustain of the transient. Sometimes you might want your transient to snap but the rest of the kick to feel quieter; a transient shaper plugin will be able to do that with 2 knobs. I have multiple versions of these types of tools and use them daily – it’s quite captivating what you can do if you exaggerate the attack of sounds which don’t have any transient at all.

In Ableton Live, you can also have fun with a feature integrated in the sample’s detail view. Let’s have a look at how you can manipulate it and how you can have fun with it…

First take a loop sample, and duplicate it in another channel.

The on the duplicated loop, make sure you set up your details like this. Now turn down the percentage of the transient.

You’ll notice that as you lower down this box, only the transient will remain and the rest of each sounds will disappear. You’re basically trimming each sound to keep just the beginning of it, which is the transient. The new channel can be leveled up and layered with the other: you’ll now notice the transient is louder and you now have certain punch added if there was not enough originally.

If you flatten or consolidate, you’ll get a new view:

See the difference and what we removed? By layering the beginning, you’re giving more punch.

Tip: try it with a kick loop or a hihat loop.

Now your fun really has just begun!

Here are a few suggestions to try for pushing your sound design even further:

  1. Control/lower the transients of the original loop with a compressor. If you set a compressor with a fast attack, it will control the transient. Play with the release to really tame it down.
  2. Add a reverb or any effect on the transient channel alone. This is really cool because the effect can either affect the beginning or the end of the sounds. I like to put reverb only on the sustain while leaving the transient dry, which gives more precision to your percussion instead of having them lost in a pool of reverb.
  3. EQ the transients to keep only the high end for sharp precision or just the mids for more oomph.
  4. Side-chain the transient with the original sound. Experiment with this one and you’ll achieve some fun results!
  5. Compress both channels by grouping them.

Feel free to share your thoughts about transient shaping!

Adding life to sounds: movement in electronic music

Creating movement in electronic music

One of the most misunderstood concepts in electronic music is movement. By movement, I am referring to the way that each sound constantly evolves throughout a song. I was once talking with someone who is very into modular synthesizers and he was saying that he cannot stand recorded sounds such as samples because according to him, those sounds are “dead”. With modular synths a sound can be repeated for minutes and it will never be exactly the same because the hardware components constantly give the sound slight variations. A recorded sound is frozen just like a picture. Since we don’t all have the luxury to own a modular synth, let me explain how we can use software tools to make sounds feel “alive” and develop some movement in our own electronic music.

First, let us agree that movement in electronic music is about having some elements that are in “motion”. There are a variety of different ways to create that feeling:

1. Changes in volume (amplitude)

Volume change in percussion are often associated with groove and swing. Both can alter the volume of the sounds. That said, you can apply a groove template not only to percussion, but also to melodies and basslines. If that’s not enough you can also use the midi effect velocity which can not only alter the velocity of each note, but in Ableton Live it also has a randomizer which can be used to create a humanizing factor. Another way to add dynamics is to use a tremolo effect on a sound and keep it either synchronized, or not. The tremolo effect also affects the volume, and is another way of creating custom made grooves. I also personally like to create very subtle arrangement changes on the volume envelope or gain which keeps the sound always moving.

In general, using LFOs – such as what is offered in Max patches – can be used to modulate anything, and they will automatically create movement. For each LFO, I often use another LFO to modulate its speed so that you can get a true feeling of non-redundancy.

Tip: Combine the use of LFOs and manual edits and then copy sequences until the end of the song. I suggest you try stepping out of 4/4 and regular blocks structure to step out of a “template feel.”

2. Filter

Another great way to create movement is to have the sound always changing its tone. Using a filter in parallel mode is a very efficient way to create colours. The important part is to make sure that both the frequency and resonance are constantly in motion by using either LFOs or envelopes. By being in parallel the sound always appears to be the same but will have some added body to it because of the filter. What many people don’t know is there are different types of filters, so you can try different types of filters into different send channels and then your song will feel like its moving. While filters are great for subtle changes, you can also do the same trick with an equalizer but still in parallel. Adding an envelop on the filter so it detects incoming signal and change the the frequency is also a very nice way to keep things organic sounding.

Tip: Try comparing how a Moog filter can differ from any regular ones.

3. Textures

Background textures or noise is another great way to emulate analog gear. There are many ways to do that, but the one that I recommend is to get a microphone for your iPhone and then record a part of say, your next visit at the coffee shop or restaurant, or even in your house where we don’t realize that there is still a very low level of noise. Adding that recording at low volume to your song automatically adds a layer of every evolving sound. if you want, you can also convert certain noise into a groove pattern which creates a form of randomization on your sounds. Some high quality effects such as saturation used on certain sounds will add a form of texture that prevents your samples from sounding stale.

Tip: FM modulation on a filter or oscillation can create gritty textures.

4. Stereo and Panning

For this point there are different effects that play with the stereo image and – while you should be cautious – it’s good to have at least one or two sounds that have these kinds of effects. Some of these types of effects include of phaser, chorus, flanger, delay, reverb and auto-pan. They can all give the sounds movement if the modulation is unsynchronized and if the wet/dry is constantly being slightly modified.

Tip: Just be careful of what effects you use as overusing can create phasing issues.

5. Timing

A sound’s position in a pattern can change slightly throughout a song to create feelings of movement; a point people often overlook. This effect is easier to create if you convert all of your audio clips to midi. In midi mode you can use humanizer plugins to constantly modify the timing of each note. You can also do that manually if you are a little bit more into detail editing but in the end a humanizer can do the same while also creating some unexpected ideas that could be good. Another trick is to use a stutter effect in parallel mode to throw a few curve balls into the timing of a sound every now and then.

Tip: turn off the the grid locking in the arrangement section to intentionally be imprecise.


SEE ALSO :   Dynamic Sound Layering and Design 

Sound design: create the sounds you imagine inside your head

You might never really be able to make the sounds that you envision in your mind 100% accurately using sound design, but I can offer you some advice to build on a good starting point to make something close to it. Just like in painting and cinema, often our imagination will play tricks on us; you might imagine what you think could be “the best idea ever” but once you actually get down to working on it, you quickly realize that there’s a world of difference between your imagination and the final output.

So, is there a way to use sound design to transpose those ideas into something practical?

Yes, absolutely.

Sounds have a structure, shape, and form, and when you “hear” something in your mind, you have to translate this idea into a precise description which will enable you to get you started on actually creating it.

To get a good start in the sound design process, ask yourself the following question:

Can you explain your idea verbally?

The first step is to analyze the physical characteristics of the sound. Keep in mind that sound has multiple axes and characteristics:

  • Time: A sound can be short, long or somewhere in the middle. The temporal aspect of a sound is basically its duration.
  • Envelope: The ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release) envelop trick is what I’m referring to here. Foe example, does your sound start out loud and then fade away, or maybe it does the opposite?
  • Frequency Spectrum: Is the pitch of the sound high or low?
  • Harmonic or inharmonic: Does your sound have tonality or is it more noise based?
  • Position: Is your sound static or panned on a side? Is it moving?

Secondly, you need to identify a source material for your sound and decide how it will be shaped:

  • In a previous post, I talked about layering sounds. One great way to get started is to try to find already existing sounds, and layer them in a way to get to something close to what you have in mind. For instance, layering a tom, a clap and a snap–when glued together–will form a rounded sound that extends up into the highs. When combining your sounds and layers, I recommend using a good compressor of the Opto or Vari-MU type; they are musical and create a great feel to your sound. Check out Native Instrument’s Vari Comp or KUSH’s Novatron that came in strong in 2017 as one of the best tool on the market for a reasonable price.
  • If you’re more into synthesis, you can do something like experiment with a subtractive approach by using multiple Oscillators with a good filter. I usually use Ableton’s Operator but this year U-He’s Repro 5 has been really nice for me in terms of sound design; lovely, creamy sounds. I like to have my low end and mids set to sine and then will shape harmonics set to square or triangle. Experiment endlessly!
  • Another interesting option would be to use field recordings. You might think this approach is a bit odd, but you can even try to make the sound with your mouth, or try to find objects to hit; you’ll always end up with an interesting sound. You’ll also be surprised by how much you can do with recording your own voice. For a great, affordable field recorder, check out any of the field recorders by Zoom, they even make one that can plug into your iPhone, which is quite handy.

Sound design - Native Instruments' Vari Comp

Native Instruments’ Vari Comp


And lastly, once you’ve established your source material, you can then dive into carving your sound:

Time: there are a few things you can do to manipulate the time and duration of your sounds. Pitch-shifting something to slow it down or speed it up is fun. Granular synthesis is always an option as well; one of many options being the Mangle VST. I also enjoy having a dark reverb with a tail to stretch the length of a sound. Any reverb can do a good job here but you can easily experiment with free options found on KVR.

Sound design - The Mangle granular synthesizer

The Mangle granular synthesizer

Envelope: If you have a big chunk of sound that you want to shape, there are again multiple options to shape it. If you’re using Ableton, the easiest way would be to use Ableton’s envelope inside the clip, and draw out the envelope of the volume or gain. There are also a few volume envelope tools out there; one you can look into that I like is Volume Shaper by Cable Guys; really powerful and fun.

  • TIP: If you want a really fast transient on your envelope, try using a Transient shaper. Transient shapers can also help with sustain.
  • TIP2: A VCA compressor with a slow attack can also give you great results.

Frequency Spectrum: As I mentioned, personally I like to experiment with a pitch shifter, but I also experiment with a 3-band EQ and a compressor; mostly a FET one which is a bit more aggressive (I recommend to learn more about different compressor types if you’re unfamiliar with them all). This way you can control specific parts of your sound and manipulate which parts you want to have more emphasis. This is definitely not the only way you can do this; there are so many other creative ways to use an EQ alone (such as the UAD Cambridge),  but I like to combine multiple effects and then play with them as I am searching for the right sound.

Harmonics: Harmonics can often be manipulated with saturation and/or distortion. If you’re looking for a good distortion tool, you can check out the Scream VST by Citonic which offers tons of options. Otherwise, the Saturation Knob by Softubes is a great tool for a range of subtle to drastic changes. I suggest playing with filters as well; they can enhance some part of your sounds, especially if you use them in parallel (through a send/bus track).

Position: Try out any panner. There are multiple panning plugins on the market, but I’d be careful to make sure you aren’t making your sound spin too much in the design phase; you don’t know what the position of your other sounds will be yet and you might end up undoing everything later anyways. Beef up the sound with a chorus or a doubler to manipulate the sound’s position even more, but as I mentioned, try not to go too crazy with the panning when creating just a single sound.

These are just a few sound design techniques and ideas to get you started in creating and designing the sound you imagine inside your head. Have fun!


Bonus: A good way to come up with unexpected design ideas is to use randomization. Here’s an amazing tutorial by my buddy offthesky.


SEE ALSO :  Creating Beauty Out of Ugly Sounds 

Dynamic Sound Layering and Design

Sound layering can be a very complex or very simple technique in music creation and production depending on your goals. In a past post, I gave some really basic sound design tips; I have a lot of readers who are just starting out with mixing and producing, so it made sense to start with something less intense. This second post about sound design, however, will focus on something a little bit more advanced but still very simple: sound layering. It’s actually surprising to me to see so many people who ignore techniques that allow them to get the most out of layering, so I thought I’d write about it.

First off, I would like to discuss Ableton’s groups. Many people use them as the equivalent of busses, where all the grouped sounds will all be treated in a specific ways and yes, that approach works really well indeed. However, I prefer using a solo channel as a bus instead and use groups for sound design or classification. A good example is for kicks or claps, which are usually a combination of up to 3 different samples or sound sources (ex. 2 samples, 1 synth, etc.). Basically, since each sound is a collection of multiple samples, then I could say that they will work best as a group.

Visually it looks better and is easier to manage, and additionally you can also put effects on the group to glue all the sounds together – generally you’ll need a compressor and one or two EQs for a relatively uniform group. Once I’ve done that, I usually like to have an additional bus for all sounds (eg. groups) that will glue everything else together.

A second point to keep in mind, is that there’s always multiple ways to do sound design. Keep in mind that what I show you here is simply how I do it but there are other people who use different techniques; I try to keep it simple. Two methods Ableton will describe here that I like are the arranger and the drum rack.

If you work in the arranger, you drop sounds in the channel and it’s an easy way to see the layers. I like turning off the grid to do this so it feels a bit more natural.

You can adjust the volume for each layer and tweak the EQ to get part of the spectrum of one sound, and the complementary part of another.

You can do the same with the attack and release; there are so many options. I really recommend using the faders too for more control. So basically, volume, EQ are your best friends here. Brainworx has an amazing filter I recommend, it’s super solid for sound design.

If you prefer, you could also mainly use the Drum Rack to do the same thing. Load up the same samples in the pads of the tool and then sequence them by MIDI instead of putting them in the arranger. Some people dislike working this way because they can’t easily see the frequency shape of the audio file. But the advantage of this approach is that you get to have access to more options to manipulate your sounds, like the extra controls in Ableton’s Sampler window.

What I think is best in the end is to combine both the sound arrangement layering, with the an extra channel of Sampler use so you can work on constant movements. The main thing you want from your sound design, is a feeling of liveliness and emotion. The sampler has LFOs you can assign to filters, panning, or volume, which is a subtle touch that creates a nice layer of movement and liveliness. In the same way, I’d even add a synth of your choice to give richness to the sound with oscillators working to reinforce the fundamentals with a discrete tone; more complex sound layering.

Finally, on the group of the sound itself, I would add nothing but an EQ and compressor to “glue” everything together, but you could also use reverb to broaden your stereo image. These techniques should help you improve your sound design skills!

SEE ALSO : Sound design: create the sounds you imagine inside your head 

Pointers To Define Your Sound

The majority of artists I work with during mastering and finishing your tracks, talk about their desire to define their own sound. It’s important to them because as a music lover many times you’ll hear a just a few seconds of a song and think that’s got to be _____ band, or producer. To achieve this ‘signature style’ there will usually be a particular production style or a sound palate one will use in a way entirely his or her own that is instantly recognizable.
Case in point – there is much talk and celebration of Burial’s album “Untrue” which is now considered to be one of the most influential albums of the last decade.

Why is this album so celebrated?
For starters, the ghostly atmospheres, foley recordings and sound effects of London at night, conjure an atmosphere of a dark, eerie space. The heavy, downtempo vibe of the music is an invitation for listeners to go to their own dark places and reflect on that. Even the titles of his tracks, “loner”, “U Hurt Me”, tap into a feeling of emotional damage, which many people can really connect with. In short, the heavy sound and persona behind the record are instantly Burial.

Taking note of the various elements artists can use to create a sound all their own, let’s analyze some of the fundamentals of what will be influencing your sound.

  • Tonality: this is hugely important as most artists will generally embrace a ‘vibe’ or ‘mood’ in their music such as happy, upbeat, or angry, melancholy. Do you often work in a similar scale or key? Are your melodies basic and straight forward, or do you write complex chord progressions?
  • Genre: picking a genre to work in is perhaps one of the most obvious choices in creating ‘your’ sound, and defining your identity as an artist. Are you embracing an existing one or will you try to fit between two? This can be a hit or miss and to do something original is taking a risk but the reward can be massive.
  • Samples: Are you using samples? Synthesis? Modular? The Orb for example, loved to use samples from specific movies (the 80’s like Flash) and Boards of Canada were famous for recording their synth parts to old tapes and resampling that back into the session. Consider the possibilities of your sound source.
  • Rhythms: Are you more 4 to the floor? Breakbeat influenced? Jazz? Hip-hop? Latin rooted? Take note of where you’re most comfortable and what is your go-to groove.
  • Technicalities: This is where I can help you most and have been helping clients with on their way to creating ‘their sound’.
  • Mistake. Are you going for something slightly sloppy or very tight and quantized? Try to see what mistakes can bring to your music and if something wrong can develop something interesting. Don’t be afraid to try something you might never do as a starting point to your next track. 

The tools and effects you use can also have a major impact on your sound. I’ve covered this before but it’s important to refresh your mind when considering your choice of effects.

Reverb, Delay. You might pick one plugin to work with all the time for consistency. Reverb – maybe you always go for a plate or perhaps you prefer to use huge spaces and long tails. Are you going to use dub delays or short ones to go for a Haas effect?

Compression. Do you want your sound to be compressed or not? This is something think about. Find a compressor that can be your swiss army knife for all occasions, and stick to using that.

The process of defining your sound is much like a designer developing the branding elements for a client.

While not essential but certainly helpful, a designer will tell you which set of colours, fonts, images, and direction to use within all your work.

What I usually do with my clients to create more of a signature sound is take a collection of references and sounds they connect with and then work on a way to replicate similar sounds and ideas. The pad from here, the percussion and swing from there, kicks made this way, hats always that way… and so on. You cherry pick all your preferred sounds from different sources (eg. why not go for a style that is entirely alien to you like afrobeat if you’re into techno?) and make a collection. I can find which synth is excellent at creating that sound, and while playing with it, you’ll often discover so many new sounds you are drawn to that sound original, fresh, and inspiring.

The truth is that trying to define your sound will not come overnight. It’s a process that will be different for everyone, and you truly cannot speed through this and feel right about it because there is no fast track to originality.

That being said, in all honesty, working with someone who has the production and musical experience to guide you in the areas that best represent you is huge and can be a game changer in defining your sound.

As always let me know if you have any suggestions or questions about this post and leave a comment below and tell me what projects you are working on right now.



SEE ALSO : Beats and Melodies

Creating Timeless Music

Recently my Facebook page was flooded in a fantastic way. This thread became overwhelmed with comments I was happy to read because it reminded me of how much music can drive and affect our emotions. We’re talking about timeless music.

I asked my FB followers to name some music that hadn’t left their DJ bag for years. These were the records that passed the test of time, and truly stood out as ‘timeless’ music. Which brings up the question, what is it about some music that makes it sound timeless? In many cases, music that has content touching on deeper themes can be easier to connect with since right away it feels more personal. Music can have a way of suggesting and expressing emotions which words sometimes cannot, which is why music is often such a powerful medium of expression.

A friend of mine mentioned that music with a particular sound or mood would seem to have a personality of its own, which is a similar comment my friend Vera told me about the records she always carries with her – that certain records were like friends or companions to her. Some records work better with others and some work really well in a very specific context. Some people talked about keeping certain records to close out their sets, and others perfect for a sunrise.

In a past article, I covered how to develop many ideas quickly, but also explained the lottery of finding a good one. This can be quite a complicated topic and in some ways impossible to pin down as a science. Despite the fact that so many popular songs can, and have been written very quickly, there is still no exact science to writing great music. That being said, it’s worth spending a minute to look at a few common denominator between these examples.

Let’s explore some theories you can put in place so that hopefully, you may one day create timeless music of your own.

First, some will say achieving a state of grace, which in psychology, is often labeled as being in a state of flow. Many artists have, and can touch that feeling yet sadly will often rely on substances to reach it again, which is in many cases counter-productive. What exactly is flow?


In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow can be characterized by a complete absorption in what one does and loses a sense of space and time.

You could also see this state of ‘flow’ as an activity where time flies by so quickly, and you are so absorbed by what you do that you can feel it is being made by nearly itself, in the most natural way. I would say that this is not something essential, but usually, as you make music and have experienced this state you’ll agree that some of your best music will be written during this time.

Another way you can approach writing music that sounds more timeless is to be aware of current trends in music, and understand what really defines what’s popular. There is no shortage of studies that have looked look at chord progressions common throughout different eras, and identified a winning formula. The use of the right chord progression mixed with innovative techniques of an era will make a musical and well-written song truly stand out. David Bowie is one artist who always had the flair to find and collaborate with upcoming, creative people to push the edge creatively.

 Get it done, and get a lot of it done.
Being productive helps if you avoid censoring yourself, and not to overthink the process. In other words, if you made 50 tracks over a span of time and 5 of those were truly excellent, will always be more prolific than spending years having only made five great tracks.

Below you’ll find some tracks that made it to the suggestions people did and what made the tracks timeless would be categorized to a few main points.

Melodies: More than often, a haunting melody or something very catchy will make you remember a track.

Innovation: Using some new technology or personalizing a technique. Sometimes what you can do is take a way used in another genre and apply it to what you do.

Arrangements: There’s no secret here to say humans love surprises and arrangements are the art of playing with expectations, unexpected moments, gratifying cues and misleading ideas. The balance of these elements, the ratio of events in your track, spread in the right perspective, will make your timeline, timeless.

Mood and emotions: When you hear an accordion playing in a restaurant in Paris, even though the song is probably 100 years old, you’ll automatically connect to the mood, the emotion and understand why that musicality belongs to the streets of Paris. You know that will still be played in 100 years too. It fits. Using triggers as these in some ways can really help your music to connect with a context.

To finish my point of view, I’ll share some of the tracks people suggested that got attention and I’ll try to explain why the track can be seen as timeless.

This track by Maurizio (Moritz Von Oswald) was when I felt I really clicked to the more minimal movement back around 1996. It was one of the first low key track that was completely hypnotizing and that could be played at pretty much any moment, mixed with anything (almost) and up until now, it has been copied, influenced the whole dub techno movement. It’s for sure, a well-known classic by any DJ that’s been digging for a while. Excellent to drop in any set, it’s one of those tracks that you can’t go wrong with. Would this record have the same appeal if it was released today? It’s still strong!

Timeless for: Innovation, use of pads, groove and endless feel.

Isolé got really big through the release of his track “Beau Mot Plage” which, when released, automatically went in most of DJs bag, listening to techno, house, etc… It’s just a beautiful, well-produced record that brings a smile when played. There’s no doubt it will be a classic for the next 20 years as well.

Timeless factor: Melodies and arrangements.

We were lucky enough to first see Ric play this during his live set at MUTEK in 2002. He had it sketched out and played it at the festival. It’s one of those records that, when played, often get people to ask what song is this. Mainly because there’s a super catchy bass at first then the guitar drops and it automatically creates an atmosphere where things feel suspended. The nostalgic, yet profound feel, and tone of it makes you want to listen to it on repeat. There’s no doubt the guitar use is what makes this track memorable.

I’m flattered this track came as a suggestion to have in the bag. When Hubble and I made this track, we weren’t expecting it to get the attention it got (it was on sale on Discogs for 150 euros at one point before the repress). Soon we saw videos of DJs playing it and gave us goosebumps. It seems that this track is one that you can drop in any set, mixed with other songs or by itself and it locks you in. I’m biased because I was involved in its creation but I get the attraction by DJs to play it.

Laurent Garnier is the man behind this track, and even though it’s from 1993 is still playable right now. It’s romantic to think back then, we were making music of the future yet this one really made it there. This acid bass and melody are making things work so well in many situations, and there’s no doubt it’s a classic now, raising hands when dropped. I believe it has made a good job at grabbing a snapshot of what was rave music of the early 90’s.

Very beautifully made, catchy melody and overall, this is the kind of song that can seduce pretty much anyone. You’ll feel Paris and you’ll feel love. It’s certainly not something you can play anytime you’d like in your set but I can imagine someone playing this to end an event and would have exactly the right effect.

SEE ALSO : The Art of Keeping People on Their Toes 

My Music Doesn’t Sound Like Me

Does this happen to you? You start a project with an idea and a direction, “I’m going to make a techno track”, you fire up a drum machine, get a baseline going, start jamming, looking for sounds, creating a groove, and an hour later you listen back to an 8 bar loop that sounds totally different than what you set out to make? “My music doesn’t sound like me”. Yeah, it happens to a lot of people, and it can be really frustrating to make music that sounds totally alien to you.

There is a special kind of disappointment that comes with not being able to make the kind of music you want to create. Many producers I’ve worked with talk about starting a project with one direction in mind but as the track evolves they find the sounds they’ve chosen and feel of the song completely opposite to their original direction.

Why does this keep happening? What is going on here?

From experiencing this myself, I understand the confusion. I want to suggest looking at this situation from another perspective, which I believe will be much more positive, and productive for you as a producer. It’s all about context.

Firstly, our moods and our thoughts are always changing. We are dynamic, and there are multiple versions of us. What I mean is, you are one person when driving with very loud music on, there is one while enjoying music at a party, there is another you while listening to music made for earphones. There is a big difference between the person you are enjoying music and the person you are when making music. Both matter, both are ok.
Tip– as soon as you start a project, save it right away with a name that describes the genre or feel of the song you want to create. A name as straightforward as “techno …. ” or “house ….” is easy enough.

It’s helpful to start your productions with a clear focus and intent in mind – otherwise, it’s quite easy to drift off. That being said, my personal opinion is that drifting is a good thing, and goes hand in hand with being in the moment, and more in touch with the YOU who is in the studio in that moment.
If you are truly in touch with your emotions or follow the sounds you are excited by, drifting off into other directions is going to happen. It’s simply a process of discovery.

The way I see music is similar to the birth of a strange, alien creature that has come out from nowhere. Even if the music you’ve created sounds completely foreign to you, it’s important to be patient with the material as later in the production or mixing phases, you learn to gently tame something raw and undeveloped into an evolved creature with a unique personality. If your music sounds a little different than what you set out to do, I believe that’s a good thing.

If you’ve been reading my posts over time, you’ll know I strongly encourage The Bonsai Method, and the habit of not spending too much time on any one track. Working quickly and finishing fast will significantly sharpen up your production skills, and you’ll be a much more prolific producer for it. You want your sounds to be a little raw, out of control, and strange. These sounds are the unsculpted gems you can only do when you stop censoring yourself. This is the stuff you are striving for.

Embrace unexpected results, and embrace change.

Imagine the number of ideas you’ll have to work with if you start 20 tracks from scratch as opposed to trying to polish one song for 20 hours. Spending too much time on one track will often take away from the rawness of your initial recording. This liveliness is precisely the sound that made us excited in the first place, and it’s important to embrace these unexpected noises, rhythms, and grooves. Taking away all the rough  charm of your material could be compared to photoshopping a beautiful and natural adult woman’s body into the thinness of a child to achive some measure of perfection. Here are a few essential tips to starting your tracks off right ~

Your work is whatever you want it to be.

As a people, we are always evolving, and our tastes in music will evolve as well. It’s ideal for your music to sound alien to you and progress yet understand that your progression may happen in an order you can’t predict. Through time and work, who you really are as a musician will begin to take shape.

Hearing the music you’ve made in the past is like looking at pictures of yourself from another time. It leaves a stamp. Find the photos of yourself from the past and pay attention to the ones you love. They might be aesthetically good, but I’ll bet that your favorite images will be the ones that recall a particular moment in your life. See it with raw, original sounds you find. The ones that are bold are the sounds that will stand out through years and perhaps bring you unexpected attention.

Tip: Bounce a version of your track before saving and closing your project. Compare how it evolves. Share it to people who know you. See what freak them…

As always let me know if you have any suggestions or questions about this post and leave a comment below and tell me what projects you are working on right now.


SEE ALSO : Deconstructing A Reference Track

Templates As Seeds

As a producer, you’re likely trying to balance several tasks all at once while working on your music. If you’re spending time to look through four or five reverbs in search of the perfect sound, setting up buses and groups to pre-mix your tracks while you arrange it, or just feeling frozen looking at a blank project screen and finding it hard to get going, it’s no wonder you aren’t as productive as you’d like to be.

Good news, this post is all about setting yourself up to win before you begin. Begin to see your templates as seeds. 

Many DAWs can be setup to load a template as an initial starting point. Reason will propose a pre-made environment, and Studio One will propose if you’d like to setup a project for mixing to speed up your getting started time. Ableton Live doesn’t have that feature by default, but you can easily change that to open a custom startup project.

Even though most DAWs have this helpful feature, that wasn’t enough for me. But it felt like I could do better.

In one way this is a follow-up post to the previous Bonsai Technique that I shared a few weeks back. It was super popular, and many people sent in comments about how it really helped them develop tracks from little ideas. Now, I’d like to follow up with this idea as I realized that many people are missing out on the fun of using a template to get their projects started. Also, there are a few things we can add in that will also be valuable for your next productions. Let’s have a look at the techniques to get rolling fast.

I’m going to suggest something simple in essence, but it’s very effective to get new projects sounding great right from step one.

Start your next project using the last song used. I heard about this technique from Matthew Herbert’s manifesto, and it got me inspired. Herbert would pick up the mixing board where he left things off from the last session. Why is this a good idea?
Starting from the last mix would provide a faster workflow but also, the random EQs, compression, effects, would be set to something he would never have set up beforehand. I thought this concept was brilliant and began doing this myself. Very often I would start with the last project loaded but would make the next song right after the end of the previous one. The same configuration and settings for the kick, percussion etc… were the same, which often led me into directions I didn’t expect at all. This is a big advantage. 

Consider keeping the effects on each channel as is, but drop your new clips into existing channels at random. In some situations, I also would copy the arrangement of one song and paste it into another song’s arrangement view. Very strange results would come up, often leading to unexpected yet very usable sound design results. I often have one “mother” project which will be a safe place for me to develop and grow these ideas. Then I will copy some loops into another project’s arrangement view, and sometimes move the clips between channels to see which one fits the best. I even did the exercise of dropping a full arrangement into another project keeping it as intact as possible. From there I wouldn’t even listen to it before bouncing it out. I’d then listen to it weeks later and get blown away. I made a handful of tracks from my album Intra or White Raven this way.
Next, challenge yourself to keep your bus routing and groups intact. It’s great to have pre-made sends channels or busses that you can re-use quickly. Of course, an easy way would be to be to assemble a macro of the chain of effects you’ve used, but I like the idea of opening a template and have no idea what effects would be awaiting me. I will sometimes swap my most used effects with others I newly acquired or some I’ve forgotten about. It’s often nice to dig up older, legacy plugins that can bring up a particular grain to your sound.

Clear your finished project from the clips and save it as a template.

One exercise you can start applying today would be:

  1. Create a folder for your templates.
  2. Each time you finish a song, you do a “save as…” to that folder. You’ll then clean it from the clips in the Arranger view. I will often leave what I call ‘leftover’ sounds that weren’t used in the project. I’ll set these clips in the session view in a channel named “Leftovers.” Doing this allows you to re-purpose those sounds, which may be a perfect fit in your new project.
  3. Midi clips could be left there as well because it is usually interesting to have on hand some midi material you can quickly throw new sounds onto and see what it gets that sounds like.

Now, an extra tip, which is to make a template for the design of an EP/LP. As you know, it’s always great to have a common feel for an entire release, and one of the things I would recommend would be in the way you apply your effects.

  • Reverb. Either you pick a reverb from one specific company (ex. Altiverb) and use some presets to get started, or you try to remain in the same family of space such as Plates.
  • Delays. Using the same plugin but changing the delay speed.
  • Saturation. Try to pick one type and stick to it. I recommend applying this through a send channel where you have more control over how each sound is colored.
  • Compression/EQ. Some apply a distinct color and are more or less transparent. It can be a good idea to keep the same type of combination through your channels.

As always I want to hear your feedback on anything mentioned in this post. Feel free to share this post or leave a comment below and tell me how these creative, and time-saving techniques are working for you. 



SEE ALSO :  Pointers To Define Your Sound

How To Quickly Audition New Plugins

Plugins – it seems every week there is a wave of new and exciting plugins released to producers. It’s true that using the right tools can make producing music more enjoyable, and help you make better sounding music. This post is very technical, but by the end of this you’ll know how to quickly audition new plugins and find the best way to use them.

With each new tool comes a learning process, and some plugins are more straightforward than others. As an audio engineer I often assume that music producers of all experiences know exactly how to use their tools, but during a recent coaching session I realized that this is not always the case.

For many music producers, finding a new plugin is a trip, a quest for the next great tool.

This post is very technical, but by the end of this you’ll know how to quickly audition new plugins and find the best way to use them.

What are some of the problems with learning something new?

  • Lack of patience: We all have busy lives and when you finally have the time to sit to make music, you often don’t want to dedicate time learning the science of sound, you just want to rock out and have fun.
  • Preset limitation syndrome: Some plugins aren’t very well laid out, and their knobs might have been labeled in counter-intuitive way. In that case, I’ve seen people only using presets to get their way through.
  • Lack of knowledge: I’ve seen people getting lost while learning how compression works, what the attack vs release means, and often listening to bad advice from the internet.

There are a many ways to audition your new tools, but what’s the best way to find out how a plugin really works?

brainworx, eqThrough years of exploring plugins, I’ve found the best way to learn what a plugin can do for you is to use it in test environment before using on a serious project.
1. Create an Ableton Lab Project. I’ve said this many times before but it’s really helpful to create and use a dummy project where you conduct all your experiments. When it comes to exploring new plugins, synth or techniques you’ve learned from a video. This will a testing ground where things can safely go wrong, and it also can be the nursery for your next great ideas.
2. Import specific ‘dummy’ sounds. You’ll need to equip yourself with specific types of different sounds to see what your new acquisition can do for you.

My selection will include these sounds/loops:
1. 2 bar percussive loop. I’m talking about something fairly busy like kick-clap-hihats.
2. 2 bar hi hat loop. This is an important one. Hi hats are very sharp which often makes it easy to hear the new effect.
3. 1 bar bass loop. A simple low bass with maybe 2 notes. Simple.
4. 1 to 4 bar Pads loop. This is to have something with a long sustain to easily hear what happens with a specific effect on something long.
5. Give full attention to specific details. This is where you need to be really attentive and undisturbed, especially when you first try this technique.

The use of headphones can be very helpful too. What I’ll listen for is this:

  1. Texture change. This is the first thing I listen for. Some plugins, by their simple presence turned on will change the sound somehow. With your eyes closed listen to how the sound changes simply by turning the plugin on and off.
  2. The length of effect. Is it short or long?
  3. Volume change. Is it altering the loudness of the sounds?
  4. Movement. Is it producing movement somehow?
  5. Dynamics. Do the sounds appear to be more flat or popping out? This means the dynamics might have been affected.
  6. Record the experiment’s results.
  7. Always use a limiter on the master to avoid your ears bleeding after something goes crazy.

Lastly, once you’ve got your testing ground project ready, I’ll now describe my own audition/exploration technique. This is quite easy to apply and will forever be useful. If you can map your knobs/faders to a controller this will be a real advantage. Ableton’s Push is also great for this.

  1. Play one of the loops to be tested.
  2. Chose a knob to start with, dial this knob at its minimum. Make a mental sonic image of your sound.
  3. Put the knob at it’s maxed level (the completely opposite of where it was). Did something happen? What was the noticeable change?
  4. Gradually bring it to the middle, where it’s exactly sitting in the 50%
  5. Repeat this with all knobs but explore leaving some at 50%, others at 25% and see what happens. Sometimes you need a combination of 2-3 knobs adjusted to really see something happening.
  6. Once you’ve found something interesting, change the loop to see how it behaves on something else.
  7. Try randomizing the knobs with Max4Live’s randomizer. This can also bring fun results.

As I said at the beginning there is no shortage of new tools available to producers, yet finding the right plugins for you will be a process of trial and experimentation. The process of learning something new and auditioning your plugins can be really fun and will hopefully make you a better producer.

SEE ALSO :  Plugin Review: Circle 2 VSTi 

Bonsai Method

Are you having a hard time writing music? Are you confused what DAW to begin using, what plugins to download, what samples to get started with? Never before have producers had so many questions to answer, and to be honest, if you are struggling to make music with such a wealth of options and tools at your fingertips you might be simply overwhelmed by all the options.
This frustration also carries over into production itself. So many possibilities can be done from what you have that even making music can be frustrating. Given that, it’s no surprise that many producers fall into making music that sounds very similar to others because the process of making music is easier to do what other producers have already done. What gear others use, what techniques people use, (we can thank Youtube for exposing all the secrets) and all too often we try to replicate one’s success instead of focusing on the act of our own personal creation.

With so many tools anything is possible.

It’s predictable that faced with so many options you’ll struggle to pick one, and later worry that your choice may not have been the right one, you waste time endlessly worrying about other directions your song could have taken. Not productive right?
I once read an article that explained how negotiators work in difficult situations, where multiple options are available to them.

They will try to sum all all it up to 2 final choices.

That advice really stayed with me whenever I work on a project and will clear out my options until I can chose simply between A and B.

Throughout my posts I have been providing ideas and answering questions to help make your time more productive, and now I’d like to do propose an exercise I know has helped me greatly, I call it the Bonsai Method.

In a past post, I talked about the Rule of 10, where working on multiple projects at once might be one of the most productive way to approach creation. While feeling slow, it later fuels down to a huge batch finished almost all at once. The Bonsai Method was used for latest album where I ended up making 25 songs over 6 months, and in a matter of a few days, that all the tracks took their final form.

What is the Bonsai Method?

It’s inspired by how the Japanese make bonsais trees. Growing something with great attention under strict limitations. This evolves through 3 phases:

• Sprouting. Generating a new idea for a song is one of the most difficult parts of making music. Once you have your idea, you set off in one direction. Finding that idea can be the hardest part mostly because at the moment of making it, you may become so absorbed in it that you become biased if it’s cheezy or genius material. You’ll know with distance or you’ll grow the idea in something that would be more suitable.
• Taming/pruning. This part is when you have material on hand and that you want to give it a direction.
• Growth to final product. This would include the final arrangements before mixing. This method of creation is based on finding ideas uniquely.

In the past, I suggested ideas for new ways to create content. What makes a song memorable on my opinion is the power of one strong idea that is showcased and developed over time. Your song will suffer if you use a lot of individual sounds because nothing may stand out on it’s own, and your track will sound too busy, and lack a clear focus. The minimalist way of making music (or cooking) is to take one idea and really put it forward by using an effect with the mix down in mind, to make it shine.

Sprouting is about finding that gem. My biggest take on finding new ideas is complicated to explain, and there are so many ways to come up with ideas on your own. One quick way to sprout new ideas is quite simple.
1. Take a track you like.
2. Loop it’s last 1/3 (outro).
3. Throw ideas on top of what could be the best complementary track to mix over it. This could mean you can add a chord hit, some percussion, a simple bassline, etc.

Basically, you’re building the intro of your track that would be mixed by a DJ, over the track you selected. Once you listen to both of them and notice that have something there, mute the reference track and listen to what you have put together.
It’s possible that this process may seem underwhelmingly simple or plain weird, by itself. We’ll work on that on the second phase but remember that this is the beginning of something which will grow into a future track. Patience my friend.

Taming and pruning. This one, just like described in the post Rule of 10, is about coming back to what you have created over several days, and work on it little by little. You’ll need to focus on the content, the idea, not necessarily over the percussions, mixing, kick, etc. All those will come by themselves once you nail down what this track is about.

  • Don’t discard anything, keep everything.
  • Resample and record the little takes you do. Instead of putting blocks in the arranger, play a melody in a loop and record yourself tweaking it.
  • All these new takes are the pruning of the original idea.

Things you can do to alter and modify your sound:

  • Change the pitch.
  • Stretch it, warp it.
  • Change the groove. Change the sequence, rhythmic feel of it.
  • Add effects: compression, EQ, saturation, filter, are the main ones to look for.

Growth to the final arrangement.
Ableton, arrangements, live, techno, cleanIn a past article I’ve explained how to turn a loop into a song but for this method I’d like to take a special approach that might surprise you. It’s based on one simple rule – once your have your idea down: you may only make 1 correction per time you open the project.
This is important, you’ll come back on multiple occasions and adjust little details in your last touches. Just like the Bonsai Method, you have to come back, adjust one little detail, save, and close the project.
You’ll spend only a few minutes on your song at one time to keep your impression of the track as if you listened to it for the first time.
You’ll be more efficient if you come to your project with the idea that you can only make one single change and then save it until next time.
As you probably know, the main goal here is to make the first 1/3 of your track and then, the rest will be pretty much-duplicated ideas and add-ons.

As always I want to hear your feedback on anything mentioned in this post. Feel free to share this post or leave a comment below and tell me how the Bonsai Method is working for you. 


JP –

SEE ALSO : Two birds one stone. Separating ideas.

Beats and Melodies

One aspect of using the Non-Linear Music Production technique that I want to share with you involves two simple, and easy to follow tips with big benefits – we’re going to focus on just beats or melodies – this going to upgrade your productivity in the studio and it’s extremely effective in reducing writer’s block.  

Statistics show that in February the number of people known to be stuck facing writer’s block is often on the rise. We can blame long cold winters for being partly to blame, yet there’s also a few things that can lead to this, such as:

  • Fatigue. A lack of warm sunlight and an increase of time spent indoors.
  • Overworking. If you’ve fallen into a routine of day job, followed by study, then music production at the end of a long day, or as the last part of a long day, you might fall in the trap of overdoing it, and becoming unproductive.
  • Lack of distance. Writer’s block is often a sign of creative burn out and is a clear sign you need distance from what you’re working on. If you’ve over exposed yourself to the same kind of creative work, you might need to dip into something new to get refreshed, which is what this blog post is all about.

To make your best beats and melodies, give yourself the freedom to produce in a deconstructed way. Break the mould.

Part of the problem of falling into a slump comes in believing that to make music, you need to begin writing your song in a linear way, which is starting from the very beginning, working up to the middle, and following through until the end of the track. Perhaps, before approaching your next track with that mindset, consider embracing a different way to think about your time in the studio.

Setting yourself little goals are simple and bring back the fun in making music.

One of the ways to get your track really grooving early is to work on one element of your track only. Get started making just the beat, or melody. The task of concentrating on just one element of your production will take off a big part of the pressure in trying to finish something bigger. Another benefit to working and focusing on one element at a time is that doing so lends itself to experimentation, play, and an appreciation to those sounds on their own. You can even roll back one step before  approaching this and practice on sound design alone if you feel like making beats or melodies isn’t working for you right now.

Do you often sit in front of your computer and imagine yourself putting that loop into it’s final song-form, and think abo ut everything you need to do to get there? This can often be discouraging, and prevent you from making great music.There’s some debate on what should be done first when starting a production. Some artists admit they can’t do a beat if they don’t have a melody or vice versa. My personal view on that is quite simple, if you can only make music in a certain method, it’s time for you to break that to avoid falling into dependencies, which can hurt your music making progress.

To make your next session super productive let’s do a bit of preparation – there’s so much you can outsource from these next few steps. 

  1. Make a folder with today’s date.
  2. You’ll be saving your project in there as well as anything related.
  3. Get yourself a timer. I highly suggest that you limit your time on only ONE task. Focusing on only ONE element of your track will speed up your productivity, and make sure your aren’t spending time on less important details.

Making beats. With the premise that we’re using Ableton here, there’s no good or bad way to make beats. But I invite you to explore a mixture of midi use vs simple audio assembling in the arranger.

Let’s see a few important points you can apply to make these beats:

  • Sample selection. At this moment having the perfect sample is not important. I’ve seen students of mine loosing tremendous time looking for a kick while it’s actually the last thing you should be deciding. Tip: Use a simple 808 kick to start with, and swap it later.ableton live, step sequencing, patterns, beatsStep sequencing: Change the grid going from 1/4 for the main beats to fiddle to details with a 1/32. Tip:
  • Ableton Live, duplicate loopLenght: Duplicate and double up your 1 bar loop to 4, then start removing, adding so that each bar is unique. This takes away the boredom of repetition.
  • Groove: Explore grooves as you go. Try something new as importing the groove from a track you like and apply it to one sample of your beat.


Making melodies. This one might be tricky especially if, like me, you have no musical background whatsoever. It could help that you read the basics about music and know at least what are chords, harmonies and scales for instance. This is useful because Ableton will give you tools that can take away your lack of knowledge to turn it into something that makes, avoiding possible awkwardness. My take on melodies is, there’s no rules here and if you can get a midi keyboard, just start tapping randomly to hear notes of the synth you picked, then see if there’s a possible, semi-logical order you can organize that randomness into.

  • Synth selection: This exercise will make sense the more you do it. If you’ve never done this before, I strongly encourage you to try every single synth presets you can have on the ones you have. A preset is a starting point, it’s not the end result so play a few notes that start noodling around the knobs to shape whatever bothers you into something else. Don’t aim at something, improvise with what you have.
  • Melody: One simple tip that has been proven extremely useful is to record every single moment of my session. So, in one channel, make sure to have a resampling to record all the madness, ugliness, mistakes and glory but also, try to record your moves with midi recording. The recording of the sounds is more important than trying to make a solid hook out of a few notes.
  • Ableton’s melody extraction: Very useful on beatless music. Try it with some ambient and see what you get. From classical music as well, it can be surprisingly inspiring.
  • Pitch down a melody to make a bass. Always surprisingly full of new sounds.


How to use all your new sounds?

Later on, after a few weeks, you’ll end up with folders, filled with ideas. Some will be beats, some melodies. Make sure that whenever you finish a session, you export what you had in one or multiple files. You can bounce an idea you love or you can export the entire session.

Where it gets really fun is to open a blank Ableton project and import all the renders, making a channel for beats, the other for melodies. Then you can find unusual match between one and another. Make sure everything is rightfully labeled so you can reopen certain projects to go tweak a sound if needed.

How to write melodies and beats in Ableton Live tutorial.

Creating beats and melodies tutorial with Ableton Live.

Next time you turn on your DAW try working on only a beat or a melody, experiment with your patterns and notes, and take the time to closely listen to the sounds you’re creating. Save. Render. Import. Jam.

If you’re looking for ways to produce a ton of fresh sounds and grooves in a way that is fun and efficient, try working on just one element of your track (beats or melodies). And, if you find starting your tracks from writing in the same formula, try using a non-linear technique to get your tracks moving along faster.

The takeaway is this – these two techniques will upgrade your productivity in the studio, help you make more music, and are really effective in reducing writer’s block. 

I want to hear what exciting sounds you’ve come up with focusing on just beats or melodies. Keep up to date and share your progress with me online.


SEE ALSO :  Making and breaking genres in your music 

Reverb Tips to Boost Your Creativity

This isn’t just another article explaining what reverb is and what it does. If you dig a bit, you’ll find all the technical facts and information you need out there already. So instead, I’ll focus here on the little tips and tricks I use daily that you can try right away. And I’ll invite you to reflect on what reverb can do for you and your music.


Because reverb’s primary role is to add depth to a song.

I’m talking in the technical sense, but also in the way its 3D-like effect can give your song a soul. No kiddin’. Have you ever watched a movie where one of the characters is lost in thought or reliving a moment? Very often, the voice will be drowned in reverb to evoke an internal feeling, something deep and subconscious.

There could be a correlation between the reverb effect and the womb, perhaps, where it emulates the way a fetus hears the world, as if under water. Whatever the reason, the sound of reverb in our culture pretty much always conveys something hidden or profound, and using it in your music can change things dramatically.

Pros. Adds mysticism, warmth, and smoothness to percussion and melodies. Reverb can round out transients and stretch the release of sounds, which can also add dimension and that wet feeling you hear sometimes in songs.

Cons. Some people prefer a dry aesthetic in their music, which can also work very well. If the music is played in a warehouse or other large venue, adding reverb could make it sound more imprecise or confusing, perhaps removing a certain punch. This is why reverb should be used with care if you’re interested in producing dance-friendly music.

There are different types of reverbs, and each one has different uses. Here are some explorative avenues for you to try. They’re suggestions to get you started, but you could end up taking them in a completely different direction. I always encourage people to test out a few things, and most especially, to try whatever is contraindicated or not advised. This is the best way to figure out for yourself why it’s not recommended, but you might also find that you can pull something out of it.

My favourite tips are:

  • Convolution exploration. Convolution plugins extract the reverb from a song so you can apply the resulting image to other sounds. In theory, a good image is a white noise spread in a room, so that its impulse can be analyzed. You don’t have to respect this though. You can basically drop any short or long sample to see how the plugin will analyze its impulse. You can extract a sound from an old pop song, movies, your iPhone, or anything else you can think of. You can even drop a pad with no reverb and see what it does. Sometimes it gives you weird results. Same if you use a percussive loop, since it has a rhythmic impulse.
  • Panning reverb. Using multiple send channels or busses, you can combine multiple reverbs to create your own personal desired space. Pan one to the right and another to the left. Adjust the pre-delay and decay, and maybe change one to a hall and the other to a plate. See what happens.
  • Reverb EQing. Abbey Road made this popular with their trademark sound, which added an EQ before a reverb. Generations later, reverb plugins now often come with their own integrated EQ. One tip to increase precision is to cut off anything coming in the reverb for percussion and pads as it tames any edgy or problematic frequencies.
  • Adding subtle automation. A reverb that constantly moves will feel alive. You can use automation on the decay and pre-delay. These two usually add a lot of space. They will give the weird impression of being in a room that’s shrinking or expanding, as if you’re moving around it with the walls getting closer and further away. Used well, it can be very psychedelic.
  • Astronaut in spaceMultiband reverb. If you know how to split your signal’s in-frequency ranges, you could use a deeper reverb for your mids and a longer one for the highs. That can also be done with send channels, again where one filters out highs and the other filters out mids. This one is particularly effective with percussions, and it can add a really nice shimmering effect to them.
  • Resampling reverbs for convolution. Send a clap in your reverb experiment and resample it. That sample can then be dropped in the convolution. This will usually reshape the sound, giving you more freedom than managing multiple reverb plugins at once (unless you have a good controller).
  • Gates and envelopes. These are a lot of fun on a reverb, as they can create weird reactions. Imagine a strong impulse that drops abruptly, or one that shapes in a off-rhythmic. They can add a nice texture to pads.
  • Infinite reverbs. There are a few reverbs that have this feature. If so, you can send any sound you like through them and it can become a pad or smooth synth. If you resample it yourself, it can be dropped into a sampler where you can play notes from it.
  • Reverb + Chorus = killer combo. Just try it, no questions.

As a gift, I made these two convolution images for you to use in your music. Should work very well in dub techno as well.

I hope this helps. Please share any ideas or tips you come up with!


SEE ALSO : Intuition for decisions in music production