Production Q&A #3

Before I start the Q&A this week, I just wanted to take a second to thank EVERYONE for all the kind words and well-wishes about my studio appearing in Electronic Musician magazine this month. Your support and positive comments just help reinforce my view that I’m lucky enough to be in a position to help so many talented musicians. Thank you so much to all my friends, clients, and the hundreds of people I’ve met around the world so far on this incredible journey.

With that, on to Q&A #3:

What’s the best way to keep frequency-rich ambient music parts separated in a mix? I hear beautiful droning musics where one hears every layer as if it was packaged together and simply rearranged by the artist. I wonder if you could give tips for mixing such sound-rich music successfully.

I think the key to this is to realize that when you hear these dense, frequency rich ambient pieces from artists, often it’s the combination of all the parts interacting that give it that full sound. There’s a fine line between dense in a good way, and muddy and cluttered in music, especially when you’re talking about ambient drones and pads and the like.

For me personally, I tend to focus on how all the sounds interact while I’m actually creating the song. I make the adjustments to each song to get them to fit together as part of the process of shaping the sounds, either through synthesis or during the mixdown. More often than not, I tend to start out with a single pad sound that will define not only the feel of the music, but also it’s tonal ebb and flows.

By that, I mean that the first part I record will dictate not only the key of the song, but also how it progresses in terms of feel and mood. I can build up to higher notes to accent peaks in the song, or use deep and low notes to make things more introspective and anticipatory. So when I record this first part, I tend to large and full sounding synth preset/sound/multi/etc.

Once the main element is recorded and I’m happy with the flow of the piece from start to finish, then I’ll start adding other pads and ambient elements to compliment the first one. It’s here that I focus on making each part fit together, so that they work together to create a texture, and hopefully aren’t fighting each other. I’ll use filters to remove deep lows or highs that might clash, or even different EQs to accent certain frequencies I want to accent.

The other thing that I think is important, is to not only think about what parts of the sounds to focus on, but when they should be playing too. A trippy ambient piece I do (like Dualate for instance) might have 5-6 pad and texture sounds in it, but it’s rare they are playing all at once. You have to use each distinct sound in a way that supports the overall feel of the piece, without adding clutter to it.

Finally, as I mentioned, often times I’ll use EQs to isolate things even more in the mixdown. The key here is to use only as much as you need, and to no arbitrarily cut or boost things if not needed. All too often radical EQ shapes can detract from the feel and texture of the sound itself, so only remove or highlight those parts that really need it. Like many other aspects of music making, many times less really is more, even with ambient music.

What are some tips for doing music production as a career? Is it even a viable option anymore?

I’m going to repost something I said over at the forums last week, as I think this answers it perfectly given my thoughts on the matter right now. I’ll probably go more in-depth into this topic in a separate blog post in the future too, as I get a lot of questions from people about it still. With that….

I’m two years into making all of my income from mastering and doing the odd mixdown, though it took 8+ years of doing it on the side and making the right connections (building my client list) before I could make it my sole income. Even then, I make enough to live well, but it’s nothing compared to the bio-tech job I gave up to do this.

Best advice I can give is to stop thinking about it from the standpoint of a musician or producer and instead approach from the standpoint of a businessman. Making money from any art is never easy for the majority of artists, and often will require some tough choices and business decisions time and again to succeed. Some classes in being an entrepreneur or even basic accounting will serve you better than you’d realize, especially early on. A lot of people don’t realize how much of a difference there is between making some money doing your hobby, and actually making a living off it. As producers, we tend to focus on the artistic or technical aspects of running a business, but that is only a very small part of it. If you’re not skilled in those areas already, you’re never going to succeed, where you really need to focus now is how to grow a successful business.

Also, don’t get caught up in thinking it’s about having gear x,y,z, as that really only barely impresses other people you’re likely competing against for business anyway (i.e., other producers, studios, musicians). your average customer only cares about how they are treated, and how good the end result is. You’ll get far more bang for buck networking and really putting the effort into your people skills. It’s one thing to get a new customer, keeping them coming back or recommending you to others is an entirely different story. On that note, a referral is worth far more than any advertising you’ll waste your money on too. So you need to focus not only on retaining your customers, but doing such a great job exceeding their expectations that they help advertise your services to their friends.

Be flexible and willing to adapt, but at the same time don’t try and do everything at once. Find one aspect of the business you really enjoy and strive to be the best in that. I think early on I tried too hard to go after every market I could, and once I pulled back and just focused on servicing one small group of musicians, the business really took off. I still take the odd job here and there for extra money, but I’m no longer spreading myself thin always going after every little thing that came my way.

Finally, have patience and determination. Running my own business is far harder than any other job I’ve had, and I’ve had some pretty high stress ones. Being your own boss is great, but that also means you’re the only one who can pay you I think the best advice I got when I first started doing this full time was this:

“90% of running your own business is GETTING the work, 10% of it is DOING the work”

I find that’s definitely the case. Good luck!

How did you make that first lead sound in your song “Slope Lifter”?

The main synth I used for that was Synplant, which is one of my main synths these days. Like most of my patches in Synplant, I was just planting random seeds until I heard something I liked, then used the mod-wheel to fine tune it even more. I love this way of working btw, forget knobs and filters and envelopes, just plant seeds until it sounds good and then record. Here’s the patch if anyone with Synplant wants it:

Tenax Primo.synp

To play the synth sound, I created sort of a cheat rack since I happened to be tired that night, but feeling musical with the urge to write. I used a few of Live’s MIDI devices to create an evolving, random arpeggio that always played in key. You can view the whole effects chain here, just click on the image for a larger picture:

The first device is a Chord, which turns single notes I play into 4 different ones covering a full octave. This then feeds a Random device to change up the chord voicings, before going into an Arpeggiator which turns the chords into single note riffs. Finally, I use a Scale device to make sure that no matter what that crazy shit beforehand spits out, it’s always in the same key. To complete my laziness, I copied this same Scale device to any new MIDI track I was using softsynths on, just to make sure anything else I played in the song was in this same key. All of this fed Synplant, which was then sent to a Filter Delay.

I mapped Synplant’s Effect and Release controls to Live’s generic X-Y pad for the device, and I used this to quickly record automation of the Release and Effect getting longer and more prominent as the part played. Right before the sound stops for good at the end of the drop, I scaled these back to make the drop more sparse right before the drums kicked back in.

I rarely, if ever, do this sort of MIDI device pre-effecting when I play and record my synth parts, but in this case I liked the randomness it added to the synth as I played it. A fun tip, especially useful when you’re making music out and about without a MIDI controller like I was.

Just add water, duh. :)


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