Tag Archive for: sound design

Experimental music

It was suggested to me to write about experimental music. The topic is extremely broad, and even when limited to electronic music production it could make for the subject of an entire blog all by itself. After a long while spent thinking about how best to approach it, I realized that for many producers, it is something that is largely misunderstood. Let’s try to clarify what we mean by experimental music, so you can see how useful it could be for your creative development.

First off, defining experimental music can be difficult, and it’s often a matter of perspective. What’s experimental for one person might seem fairly conventional for others. No surprises here. One way to understand it is “music made with the intention of centering its content around an experience (instead of trying to replicate an existing model or genre).”  An experimental approach is one that chases a bunch of “what ifs…”, and that takes you out of your comfort zones to break free of your usual routine of sound making.

I saw a nice video with Deadmau5, who I’m not a fan of personally, though I respect him very much for what he has done. In it, he was explaining how his life is all about trying things just to see what will happen. A lot of producers seem to want results quickly, and will try to emulate recipes, use presets, or buy samples to get to where they want. The problem is that this lack of experimentation will only slow their artistic development and pursuit of a personal sound signature.

guitar pedals, experimental musicSo is experimental music nothing but pure noise and nonsensical buzzes and beeps? Not necessarily. There doesn’t have to be a lack of structure unless you decide that the structure is what you’re experimenting with. Other areas you can experiment with include:

  • Sound design.
  • Mixing technique exploration.
  • Arrangement reorganization.
  • Unusual routing.
  • Unusual effect uses.

The most rewarding part about experimental music is how you’ll end up somewhere you never thought you would go. Along the way, you’ll learn something new and provide the listener with a fresh experience. Trying to sound like nothing else can become one of the key motivations, but the intention itself is what matters most.


The audience watching the concert on stage.

One of the main reasons experimental music has received a lot of recognition in the last decade is that it’s become an ever-growing nest for new ideas. Some of the now normal tricks found in commercial music initially sprouted from experimental grounds. At some point we completely forgot where it came from. Even electronic music itself grew out of a long journey of trials and errors that lasted nearly 50 years. I mean, back in the 80s, the hypnotic techno we’re so used to today was considered very weird…


So with all that being said, let’s talk about some pointers for how to start your very own experiments.

  1. Create a new project with the sole intention of it being an experiment. I might have just heard you say “duh!”, but having a firm intention before setting to work really focuses your mind on a specific task. Why bother stressing this? Because one of the most crucial parts of making experimental music is learning to let go of any expectations you had beforehand. It’s one of those activities where the journey is more important than the destination. This is a tough one for music producers, because the usual goal is to arrive at the most polished song possible. Let’s try to change our mentality for this exercise.
  2. Decide your area of experimentation. Consult the list above or come up with your own personal focus. I find that listening to music that you don’t really understand is a good source of inspiration. You can test the concept by replicating one sound in that song.
  3. Record the tweaks as you work. This is something guys like Ricardo Villalobos do. He’ll record 2 hours of himself tweaking the sounds. It will become pure chaos at some point, but he’ll edit out the parts he likes the most. The great thing about Ableton Live is that it will also record your knob and fader movements, which can then be edited.
  4. Give yourself a deadline. A good way to leave material in its raw form is to impose a deadline on yourself, and then just bounce the track and declare it done, with all its strengths and flaws. Accepting a track with its imperfections is a great way to move beyond what you initially thought of as a good result. If mistakes can inspire you for the following track, it can actually influence your listeners too!

Once you have a bunch of these experiences, they’re also really cool to recycle into other tracks if you haven’t released them or use the experiment to develop new sounds in new projects.

And please share your tracks with me. I always love seeing what readers come up with!

SEE ALSO : Creating Beauty Out of Ugly Sounds

Riding the Grooves in Ableton

Have you ever felt that your music’s rhythmic structure lacked a certain human touch? This seems to be the general consensus among producers, yet there is a simple solution to this hitch in the road. It’s caused by what I believe is the biggest drawback to producing music within a DAW: the musician tends to pigeonhole himself or herself by needing everything to sound perfectly aligned to the grid.

From experience, however, I think I can affirm – with a reasonable degree of certainty – that this method does not reflect how humans operate. We are not precise, monotonous machines, and we are most definitely prone to error when jamming live with acoustic instruments. There is even a certain beauty in this rawness, as music perfused with slight imperfections tends to appeal to the ear as more natural and groovy.

In order to achieve this particular “effect,” Ableton Live allows the producer to import a collection of rhythms, called grooves, into any MIDI or audio track, so as to either alter the current rhythm already written or to add an element of surprise or randomness to the audio.

The Ableton Core Library has a myriad of classic grooves that you can choose from, from MPCs to Latin percussion to hip-hop. However, in this tutorial, we’ll get really advanced and show you how to get creative by making your very own grooves.

Step 1: Record any percussive sound

I’ve recorded myself rattling my keys using nothing but a Macbook (you don’t need to get fancy).


Your recording will most likely sound like crap, so feel free to cut out excess noise with gates or tame peak transients with compressors.

Step 2: Modulation (Optional)

Add a creative effect that will automate the gain (volume) of your signal. You can draw automation curves or pump (sidechain) it with Ableton’s Autopan. The point is to create as many dynamics as possible by playing with the volume so that it translates into the clip’s velocity once we extract the groove. You shouldn’t have to do this if your signal is already very dynamic.

Step 3: Bounce

Consolidate the clip and its effects by either resampling it onto another track or simply freezing and flattening the track (by right-clicking the track).

Consolidate the clip and its effects by either resampling it onto another track or simply freezing and flattening the track (by right-clicking the track)

Step 4: Extract groove

Right click on your consolidated audio sample and select Extract groove.

Step 5: Groove pool

Open Ableton’s groove pool by selecting the wave in the lower left side. Your groove should appear in this box.

Step 6: Add groove

soundpicture2You can consult the Live manual or other tutorials to better understand what things like “base” and “quantize” mean, but make sure the timing is set really high (i.e., how much the groove pattern will affect the clip). Drag the groove name onto any audio/MIDI sample or loop track, preferably something percussive like a drum loop. Notice how the rhythm of your track has changed, and how certain transients sound louder or quieter, or appear later or earlier. If you increase the velocity of your groove, your signal will respond heavily to the volume changes in your original signal (which is why I used the Autopan to create dynamics).

Press “Commit” in the clip view, to destructively write the current groove settings to your sample. This means the sample’s pseudo-markers will move in accordance with the quantization setting, and your transients will translate the rest of the settings you selected in the groove pool.




Step 7: Layering

Hopefully, you’ve saved your original percussion loop so that you can play it with your newly made rhythm. Notice how there’s percussion a bit everywhere now, and that it’s a little bit off. Yet I’ve still opened doors to new possibilities that I couldn’t have predicted by simply drawing in MIDI notes. I even got a wonderful slap-back delay on the snare, which I can edit to my liking.

I’ll go so far as layering the two sounds with a reversed sample of my new groove, which gives me this:



I’ve then added back the original keys rattle sample, and simply applied sidechain compression to get this beat:


Although it sounds a little all over the place, I can always go back and edit it how I want, or even apply some effects! Note how it sounds more human now and not perfectly cut to grid.


Bonus: Step 8

Go back to Step 6, and drag your groove to an empty MIDI channel instead of an audio or instrument track. An empty MIDI clip will appear with notes matching the groove you created. Drag an instrument onto it to hear how it sounds. Although it will probably sound awful, you can always edit the MIDI notes to your liking!


Bonus: Step 9

You can even get away with layering organic textures such as strings, or pad with grooves. Make sure to apply different groove settings to each layer by duplicating the groove (CTRL+D/CMD+D) and dragging it onto the track that you want. You can control all the different grooves together with the Global Amount value at the bottom right of your groove pool.


SEE ALSO : Background vs forefront to create dimension   

Dealing with Past Mistakes

I was chatting with a producer friend of mine recently, and he mentioned that he was currently contacting some record labels he had released with in the past to ask them to remove his music from digital stores. I didn’t get why he would ask for such a thing, but he explained that he felt embarrassed by his past tracks and that he didn’t want them to represent him anymore.

“What was I thinking? I have no idea, but it’s embarrassing!” he explained.

He said he feels that most of the music he made back then was directionless and tailored for specific labels, and that it has nothing to do with the artist he is now. So the big question is: do I live with the past, or do I try to erase the music that I don’t want to be associated with anymore?

Well, let’s try to unpack what happened in order to avoid falling into the same trap. What were the main factors that caused my friend to react towards his past in this way?

You're never reallyalone in thisTechnical challenges. This one is pretty obvious. Let’s say you start making music, and one of your main focuses is to release on label X. All of your efforts will logically be channelled towards making music that’s an aesthetic fit for the label. But then again, you’re only just starting to produce. So you’ll find samples and presets that sound alike, try to make everything fit together, and then when you think it’s ready, send it off. You have no idea though how many demos we (as record labels) receive from people who didn’t do their homework, and who haven’t listened to our last 3-4 releases to see if their productions are up to par. For example, most problems my friend had were related to the mixdown and arrangements, which are due to simple lack of experience. As you produce, you gain experience and whatever you release will always reflect where you were technically, at that point of your life. You can remove it from stores, but not from people’s computers.

Lack of music testers. Have you played your music for people who you know are reliable sources of criticism? This might sound obvious, but a lot of producers will just finish a track and send it off to a label right away. This is a very bad habit to develop, because a second pair of ears might be the best tool out there for gaining a fresh perspective on potential issues with your tracks.

You might think you can disown the problem by relying on the label owner to take care of the technical aspects, but the truth is that a lot of label owners aren’t always technically savvy. This is how my friend and I were wondering, “How did the label owner let that get past them without sending it back to have those issues fixed?” Mainly because it’s up to the artist to ensure their track is solid enough for them to be proud of — and for it to pass muster with reliable critics too.

music direction, compassLack of direction. This one is tricky. How do you know if the music you’re making now will still hold up in 4-5 years from now? Well, you’ll never really know. But making timeless music should be more of your goal than making music that would sell, at the precise moment. Many DJs change styles and genres every year, whether because they jump from one bandwagon to the next to chase the trends, because they’re lacking gigs and choose to adjust their sets, or simply because they get bored. This can become a real issue, because if a release takes a few months to a year to get published, then by the time your music is out, you’ll have already moved on. For producers, this presents one big existential question: “What is my voice?”

If you’re spending most of your time trying to sound like others, you’ll be trailing behind all the time, trying to adjust yourself to their sound even after they’ve moved on. This is not an issue if you’re sounding like yourself.

But how do you know what your voice is?

This is a difficult question to answer. If listeners can recognize your sound from one song to another, there’s a good chance that you’ve found it. And if you tend to return instinctively to a particular musical direction when you’re having fun in the studio, this can also be a strong indication of your voice.

Try these tips to find your own voice:

  • Don’t buy samples anymore. Try to make your own.
  • Don’t use presets. Again, make your own.
  • Pick a few effects you love and use them in all your productions.
  • Spend time learning sound design.
  • Build a reference folder with tracks that inspire you no matter what.

In conclusion, I’d really encourage you not to remove music you made in the past. It is you, and old productions can be very useful for keeping track of how much you have evolved. Besides, some people might have loved what you made, and keeping the music out there is a good way to reach appropriate people.

Simple Sound Design Tips

I’ve been giving some classes since the beginning of the year, and I noticed certain questions around sound design that kept coming up while I’d be sharing other tips. I thought I’d share them with everyone so it can benefit more than one person out there.

Recently I was in a café, and I had a little exchange with the barista about what I do. “I’d consider myself a sound designer, though technically I’m an audio producer,” I told him while adding some sugar to my tea. “Dude, that makes no sense to me… Are you a DJ?” he asked back.

Sound design should be seen as carving matter into sculpture.That’s the thing, right? The DJ is the one that people see in public doing all the work and making people dance. But behind the scenes, there are the people who gave the tracks he/she plays their magic aura.

“I’m the DJ’s best friend, his best kept secret,”

was my only answer, with an enigmatic grin. I sort of prefer leaving some mystery around what I do. Even if I shared a few tips, there would always be so much more to say. Plus, the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.

So here are a few tips.

Use Ableton’s Live’s session view as your mad scientist’s lab.

The most common mistake I see from clients, either when I do mixing or help them with their unfinished tracks, is that they use the arrangement view to make their sound design.

The session view, while mainly used to jam, rehearse and perform, is perfect to make a loop and then mangle it until it becomes something completely new.

Tip: Ableton Live's session view is best for sound design. Don't use the arrangement view!TRY: Loop a 1-bar percussion sample and then add a bunch of effects on the same channel. Record yourself for a brief moment while you play with knobs. You may also record your actions to be able to see what you did later. You can then go and edit your actions as automations in the arrangement mode, which will give you cutting-edge precision.

TIP: Go into the resampled session of yourself playing, and then isolate some interesting sounds. Copy the clip with the interesting sounds below the original (master) clip. Now you’ll have variations of the first one.

Bring your designed sounds into your mix.

Looking at your session view now, you should have the original sound clips of the main elements of your track, but you should also have many variations. Swap certain clips of your mix with the clip variations. This will greatly help.

TRY: When you do your sound design, make sure you have your original song playing in the background. This will allow you to improvise on top of it, while maintaining the feeling of the main concept.

TIP: Evolving sounds in a song is a great way to keep your track feeling alive and human.

Your kick drum should be the last sound you design.

Tip: Your kick drum should be the last sound you designThis one is super important, and I hear a lot of people messing this part up. Your kick should not be the first sound to be designed in your track. People often select their percussions and build their track on top of it. This is a mistake, as your original percussion can be swapped for other percussive elements later on as you keep adding new sounds to the song.

TIP: Once your track is pretty much done, see if you can go and change that kick for a new one. Your jaw will drop once you hear how much changing a kick can dramatically change your track’s direction. Why? Because the kick is there to unify the whole concept. But when you start a new track, you have no idea where it might end up, and so the kick selected at first won’t be appropriate anymore.

SEE ALSO Dynamic Sound Layering and Design

Turn Your Writer’s Block Into an Opportunity

You’ve heard about writer’s block many times, and maybe you’ve experienced one. I also get one routinely. Many others have addressed the topic, but I’ll share some of my own views on it here.

Before anything, let’s just check a definition first so we’re on the same page:

Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown.


SEE ALSO :   Where to Get Fresh New Ideas for Tracks

What I’ve learned through time is that a writer’s block is also your body and mind telling you to slow down. There’s no better way to see it. While you can learn to change your way of working, which might be leading to feelings of insecurity, frustration, or confusion, you also need to first make sure that you’re really in a writer’s block. These are some symptoms:

  • Nothing you work on makes sense. You feel the music is just copying a trend and that it’s not bringing you joy anymore.
  • Everything music-related sounds crappy. Your brain is tilting and all the beautiful sounds aren’t pretty anymore.
  • You have the omnipresent temptation to give up.


relax-smWhere many people get confused is between a writer’s block and being exhausted. I know many prolific producers who work really hard for 3-6 months and then will not do any more productions for the rest of the year. They will focus on DJing, collecting new toys for the studio, or just spending more time playing music.




There’s no better way to approach the situation than taking a step back. For my friends, for example, this usually involves:

  • Collecting music that makes you feel good or listening to early tracks that inspire you. Just make playlists on Soundcloud, listen to old liked tracks, and take a moment to buy some.
  • Listening to music you never listened to before or music you actually don’t normally enjoy.
  • Playing video games.
  • Exercising.

It’s easy to fall into simple psychology tips, but I’ll refrain from doing so, mainly because each person has their own way about it. But one thing that I absolutely encourage you to do is to not panic.

Music producers: Never delete songs or projects you don't like. You may recycle them later!Resist the urge to delete or sell anything you don’t like. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me they deleted a project they were working on. I believe that this is one of the last things you want to do. Not only does every project have at least one great thing about it, but they can probably be recycled later on, maybe even many years later.

Take time to learn sound design or sound engineering. One of the things that happens when you are creatively productive is that you lack the time to perfect your design skills. You’ll be absorbed in mixing and making tracks and arrangements, but sound design is one of the most important parts of your work. Also, when do you ever have time to read technical stuff? Mostly never or just a few minutes here and there. Take the time to read up on the technicalities you usually avoid for fear of boredom.

Reach out to fellow producers to collaborate or remix. When working with others, things usually flow easily. That is, it’s not really your work, and teaming up brings motivation. Try it!