Many audio producers could benefit by taking heed of this well put together sound design resume tutorial. The context given here is film sound but the ideas can be applied toward any audio production niche.
The following is a recent remix of the song Fire Curtain by the electro pop band Jupe Jupe. The original song (from their second album Reduction In Drag) is presented first, followed by the newly re-imagined version. Below the remix are some explanatory notes on the production process for this particular remix.
- To begin with, one of the motivations for this project was to make it an exercise in dubstep production so that drove the decision to set the new tempo at 140. As can be heard, the original song is about 15BPM slower. If the tempo difference had been any greater the guitar and vocal tracks would have been noticeably warped.
- Almost all of the synth lines were re-voiced in the new version for variety’s sake. I’d been wanting for some time to do a song arrangement using the fantastic sounding fretless basses and chapman stick in Spectrasonic’s Trilian softsynth, so this finally seemed to be a good opportunity to utilize them. The sub bass track is a mellow fretless and there’s also some doubling in a few sections with a more active mid-rangey, slightly over driven fretless voice. The second fretless also covers the chords during the bridge. The percussiveness of the chapman stick was a good fit for the main staccato melody line and I switched things up a bit by having it change octaves around the other instruments in some sections. The octave changes also helped give the overall song more forward momentum.
- The vocal effect in the verse is a layered submix of about six tracks of Sonic Charge’s Bitspeek effect. Each of these effect tracks used different settings and sounded great when solo’d, but due to the nature of the plugin each also had some momentary pitch irregularities. So stacking six slightly different versions strengthened the overall pitch so as not to distract from the original vocal performance. It also thickened the effect texture. Reverb and delay were kept minimal on the verse vocal to maintain an intimate feel.
- Drums were performed on the Alternate Mode Trapkat in a typical dubstep reggae beat and the timing of the performance was slightly tightened (about 40%) using Cubase’s iterative quantizing. This gave it the accuracy of a pro drummer while still maintaining it’s humanness. The midi file was then edited to move embellishments and fills around the song to taste. The sounds were a stacked combination of Native Instruments’ Battery and Kore, and probably given some parallel compression to glue it all together and add kidney punching impact.
- The wobble bass in the first instrumental section of the verse was done by running the mellow fretless track through the Fabfilter Volcano plugin with a steep sloped lowpass and assigning the cutoff to an LFO. Then the LFO frequency was automated to change speed roughly every two beats. These speed settings were somewhat random at first and then refined manually after repeated listening passes. Next the bass was sent through Cubase’s stock bit crushing plugin and both the bit depth and frequency were automated independently using the same technique as the filter’s cutoff LFO, but with more varied ramps and sweeps as opposed to the square stepped ‘downbeat only’ LFO changes. After refining the effects on this track over the course of a few days it was then given a drastic low cut filter at about 200Hz with UA’s Cambridge EQ (my go-to surgical EQ) to remove all sub bass. Then it was bounced as audio (printed to disk) and mixed back in on it’s own track on top of the existing mellow fretless sub bass track. The Cambridge low cut filter ensured these two bass tracks wouldn’t phase cancel each other at the bottom end of the spectrum or ‘mud-ify’ the mix.
- Because of the faster tempo of this new version the overall song felt a little rushed. Several of the song’s sections passed by too quickly and some breathing room was needed. So the first instrumental verse and the bridge got extended. This also opened up some real estate so that the two guitar parts in the instrumental verse could each have their own four bar section (to rock out with the wobble bass) instead of being on top of each other.
- The original song had a Roland Jupiter 6 playing the chords in the chorus. I wanted to substitute that patch and lately I’ve been wild over the vocoder in Native Instruments’ Razor synth. (Yes I’m aware at this point that I sound like a product rep for NI! What can I say – their stuff just tickles my fancy.) It has an uber future sheen that is very present but takes up very little bandwidth. So using the main vocal track as the carrier and the midi chords for pitch, Razor it was for stating the chorus chords. It ended up being more subtle than I envisioned but provides some background ‘outer space’ character to the choruses.
- After the first chorus there’s another instrumental verse break but instead of repeating the guitar parts as in the original, I stumbled on a new lead part for this section. This was done using the original melody line carved apart by a high threshold noise gate to reduce the amount and duration of the notes for a rhythmic variation emphasizing the accents. This also pulls the timbre of the original ‘dulcitone’ voice (which I really liked a lot) into the remix as a featured instrument.
- As mentioned before, the bridge felt too fast at the new tempo. So this whole section got extended in length and the chords were held longer. Doing that opened up the need for a new lead sound. This seemed like a good time to try a technique for programming jazzy style flourish runs that I recently stumbled across. Doing this in Cubase ended up using different methods and tools than the video tutorial I picked it up from but the result was similar. If anything the method I discovered was easier: set up a midi track with a ‘force to scale’ filter set to the song section’s key and mode. (in this case there were two chords so I set up a different midi track for each.) Then use the line draw tool in the piano roll of the midi editor to layout some semi-randomized steep zigzagging peaks and valleys of notes, adjusting the quantized note length for speed/density. Do some trial and error until finding some workable lines. Then refine them manually by nudging notes around in time, duration, and pitch. Cut and paste these together into a cohesive ‘solo’ whole. I also found that layering several of these note runs to collide with each other simultaneously using a synth in monophonic mode forced the machine to decide which note it would play if the notes happened to fall as chords. Some interesting random results came out of that and were also refined by hand. A bell/harp type sound in NI’s FM8 fit the bill for timbre. I felt that simplicity with a hint of spookiness was called for here. And FM8 always cuts to the front of a mix nicely. As with most of my synth programming the sound was chosen as a ballpark preset of what I was looking for and then tweaked to suit the context and my liking.
- The acoustic rhythm guitar in the bridge was the only instrument in the song that didn’t sound natural when time compressed to the new tempo. So I took the liberty of glitching the bejeezus out of it using the plugin called . . . well . . . Glitch of course. The gritty drop at the end of the bridge was a gratuitous use of a sample from the latest Studio Wormbone sound pack – a decrescendo slide of layered synths.
- The oh-my-god-the-song-sounds-like-it-just-got-momentarily-deconstructed fill at the end of the bridge was done by running the entire song through the Twisted Tools Buffeater plugin for about half a beat. I also experimented a lot with glitching longer durations of the full track using Buffeater but only this tiny embellishment slice seemed appropriate. I toyed with many other vocal effects throughout the song too but they all just ended up detracting and ended up on the cutting room floor.
- Toward the end of the tune I inserted a bar of lone chapman stick in a low octave to provide some breathing space before the final big push of the last chorus. The wobble bass layer gets slyly reintroduced at low volume in the second half of the last chorus and continues to the end of the song. The gated dulcitone melody lead also gets restated in the outro, and the drums switch to a ‘grand finale’ beat.
- Reverb and compression were applied judiciously throughout. I shan’t bore you with those details here.
- Overall this remix was a pleasure to undertake. I wasn’t watching the clock at the time but I’m guessing I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 hours diddling and tweaking on it, including lots of exploratory tangents. The strength of the song writing is evident so the challenge was to give it a new direction without tweaking the structure too much. *Big thanks to Jupe Jupe for letting me steal your intellec-chal property!*
This is a video tutorial on how to make dubstep. Even if you’re not into this genre per se, these techniques can be applied to other electronic music as well. It’s a long video packed with excellent production tips and tricks. Making a bass sound ‘wobble’ using synced rhythmic automation on the filter cutoff isn’t new at this point, but I liked the notion of using the same automation idea in other ways. For instance varying the parameters in a bitcrushing plugin. I also liked the idea of using a stutter effect routed to an effect send for stuttering multiple instruments simultaneously. Nice!
Here’s a link to a well written article (or rather a series of articles) about creative drum programming from Sound On Sound online magazine. Many of these techniques and more go into Studio Wormbone sound packs like Mutated Drum Bundle.
If you haven’t perused the Sound On Sound archives yet, you’re in for an informative treat. For many years now they’ve published excellent articles on many facets of electronic music making. Set aside a weekend (or two, or three) to dig into their offerings. Earn yourself a PhD in techno!
Say what you will about trendy flash-in-the-pan genres. I normally don’t pay them much attention but have to admit that I really like the wobble bass sound(s) in dubstep. Here’s a tutorial on how to construct said bass sounds in Native Instrument’s Massive softsynth.
This is a well written article on the Universal Audio site covering tips and tricks for more accurate tuning. To seasoned musicians most of this info will be brushing up on basic fundamentals (pun inadvertently intended). But there are also some lesser known tips and tricks – for instance tuning the top and bottom heads of a drum to different intervals to control excessive resonance. It’s also valuable to know the tuning challenges associated with instruments other than your own in a band or ensemble setting so that you can better communicate any issues that might arise with the other people that you need to be in tune with. Enjoy the read!
I just stumbled across this trick for quickly programming keyboard flourishes. It’s done here in FL Studio (or ‘Fruity Loops’ as we old schoolers still call it on occasion) but a similar technique should be applicable to whatever DAW you’re using since the tools required are fairly basic. Simply open up piano roll, add some chords, copy/paste, and slice away. Nice!
Here are a number of well written production tutorial articles covering some of the major aspects of creating electronic music of any genre. Mixing, performing, working with other musicians, mastering, song arrangement, etc, are covered in these helpful PDF or HTML files -
Recently Studio Wormbone spoke with Tom Shear, the mastermind behind the dark melodic electronic dance music of the band Assemblage 23. As it turns out, when he’s not running the softsynths U-HE DIVA, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and his vintage Sequential Circuits Pro One through guitar amp simulators he likes to dine with jackals. Read on to find out more about his creative impulses and the new album Bruise.
[SWB] The A23 website has a thorough FAQ page here about the band’s history, personnel, and general info. In addition to what’s there can you say a little about what motivated you to start, and has the motivation to be a musician changed over the years as you’ve been polishing your craft?
I’ve always had an interest in music, even as a kid. I used to ask for toy instruments all the time for Christmas when I was very young and my parents must’ve put up with a pretty horrific racket. They were very supportive, though. In 1979, I heard Gary Numan’s “Cars” and I knew at that moment that whatever made the strange sounds in that song was something I wanted to learn about. The rest is history. haha
[SWB] If you had to describe your music in terms of genre which genres might it be included in?
Hard to say. We tend to tread this sort of uneasy ground between synth-pop and EBM. We’re too heavy to be straight synth-pop, but not as heavy as the average EBM band either.
[SWB] There are so many genres these days, in your opinion is it still worthwhile to describe a band’s style using genre references or have you found a better way to get the point across?
It’s less important than it used to be because everyone has access to pretty much any song ever at their fingertips, so they can check bands out themselves. I wonder sometimes if bands slapping themselves with a genre label hurts more than helps them. How many people never bother to discover other bands because they think they hate an entire genre?
[SWB] When can we look forward to hearing A23 jump on the Dubstep bandwagon? : )
Already did it back in 2007! The Nerve Filter Dub of “Binary” on the “Binary” single was very influenced by the dubstep bands of that time. This was the pre-wub era, though. haha
[SWB] You’ve got seven previous full length releases and an new one just about to launch. What can we look forward to with this next album “Bruise”?
I think it’s a very diverse album. Style wise, it’s kind of all over the place. But I think (or I hope, more accurately), that it still sounds coherent as an album and everything that is on there still sounds like A23.
[SWB] Tell us about how a new A23 song typically comes into being from start to finish . . .
I keep a folder of ideas for an album pretty much from the time I’ve completed the previous album. These are usually very quick sketches… basslines or chord progressions… just so I don’t forget them. As time goes on and I accumulate more of these, I start weeding out the weaker material and flesh the stuff I like into full arrangements. Lyrics and vocals usually come last.
[SWB] What triggers inspiration for you?
It can really be anything. You might hear a sequence of notes in the creaking of a rusty gate… you might hear a new style of music that inspires you… you might just improvise on a really cool synth sound. I think inspiration can come from anywhere if you keep yourself open to it.
[SWB] What role does production play in your creative process?
Quite a bit, actually. So much of the music I was influenced by in the 80′s sounded cool because of the creative use of effects or sampling. So I spend quite a bit of time building sounds and arrangements with layers and using the effects as just another part of the sound design. It’s pretty amazing how drastically you can alter the sound of an instrument just using effects alone.
[SWB] Your lyrics often follow dark themes. Many songs seem to be about interpersonal relationships and introspection, though some might have political undertones like “How Can You Sleep” on the album Compass, or topics involving current world events like Katrina hitting New Orleans in the song “Madman’s Dream” on the album Meta. There’s also a fantastically hypocritical vocal sample of Mr. Rush Limbaugh on one of the Nerve Filter songs that I’m always re-amused by whenever I hear it. What makes you choose a particular lyrical or thematic topic when song writing? Is the concept in place before the music is written?
It’s rare that the lyrics come first, but sometimes the musical and lyrical ideas develop independent of one another and get married together further down the road. I keep a notebook and sometimes will just write down a combination of words or a phrase that comes to me that I think might be useful later. For me, writing has always been a bit therapeutic, so the themes tend to be a bit darker. It’s just a way to deal with things that bother me in a constructive way.
[SWB] There’s a drool worthy list on the A23 website of equipment that you use. (I for one was pleased to see that the mighty Oberheim Expander is still in your kit list as I’ve been lusting over one of those for years.) In recent years it seems to have grown more in the software realm than hardware . . . is that due to personal preference or do you see software as the wave of the future?
I think the ideal set-up includes a bit of both, but there’s no doubt that software is the direction things are headed these days. There are a lot of insanely good-sounding software instruments coming out these days and with computers only getting more powerful, it’s safe to say we will eventually reach a point where the two are indistinguishable. Instruments like u-he’s Diva are already pretty damn close. But, there’s different advantages to both. The instant recall aspect of software instruments is insanely useful, but the more hands on approach of programming a synth with knobs is loads more fun than pushing imaginary ones on a softsynth. And unfortunately, I had to get rid of the Xpander about a year ago when tax time came around. A really fun instrument, but to be honest, I rarely used it in my own productions.
[SWB] As far as gear/instruments go, are you more prone to owning a few highly versatile items, or a larger selection of ‘one trick pony’ specialty pieces?
Obviously, I prefer to work with instruments I can get a lot of mileage out of, but sometimes a one-trick pony can be cool if you need “that” sound. But I honestly don’t think there are all that many one trick ponies as far as synths go… they are what you make of them. Even if the synthesis options are limited, you can use effects to sculpt the sound further and take it beyond what it can sound like alone. I’m a big fan of amp simulators for this purpose.
[SWB] What’s your current favorite hardware? Software?
Hardware, probably my Sequential Circuits Pro One, even though it’s in pretty rough shape. It won’t stay in tune, so sometimes I have to sample it, but it just has such a great, punchy sound. So fantastic for basses. Software, I used a lot of [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere on the new album and really love that one a lot. Lots of programming possibilities and an amazing range of raw material to work from. It can sound amazingly analog if you program it right. I recently picked up u-he Diva and am loving that, although I haven’t used it on any productions yet. It’s a processor hog, but it sounds so convincing. It has really helped quell my lust for vintage analogs, as it can get pretty damn close and is really versatile.
[SWB] What are some of the best musical samples you’ve created and how might they get applied in a song?
One that comes to mind is the piano part in “How Can You Sleep?” from “Meta”. It’s layer of a grand piano, an ebow guitar, and the sort of metallic attack is a tune sample of me hitting the washing machine in my basement. I really like the Alan Wilder approach to sound design where the sounds have both electronic and organic qualities to them. Sampling is great for that sort of thing and synths like Camel Audio’s Alchemy are really useful for building your own sounds that way.
[SWB] How often do you perform, and where? How often would you prefer to perform, and where?
We’ve performed pretty much everywhere except South America and Asia at this point. How often depends on if there’s a new album out or not, but we usually tour a few months out of the year in total. I enjoy the live performance aspect, and particularly the travel, but it’s hard work, too, so you have to be careful not to burn yourself out. I’d really like to get to Asia and South America so we can cross those off the list of places we’ve been lucky enough to visit.
[SWB] During the traveling for your international shows do you have many chances to break away and sight see for pleasure? If so, what have been some of the highlight locales you’ve been to . . .
Sometimes. The thing you have to remember is that every day of a tour that you’re not playing a show, you’re losing money. So typically, we try to tour as efficiently as we can, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to sight see, but every now and then you get a day off in a city you’ve never been to before and those are pretty awesome. It’d be hard to highlight… every place has something special about it. BBQing on a back porch in a game preserve in South Africa as the jackals cackled just a few yards away was something I’ll always remember, though.
[SWB] What does your live performance setup consist of?
It’s extremely simple. We run the backing tracks off an iPod. It’s small, it’s quick and easy to throw together a set list, and if it breaks, it’s relatively cheap to replace and they’re available everywhere. The keyboard player uses a controller to control his Access Virus C, which is usually split into several different zones to play different sounds. Then we have a drummer who uses Roland e-drums.
[SWB] With the radical shifts in the music industry in recent years (record labels shrinking, direct artist interaction with fan base via social networking, file sharing, etc) where do you see the business side of music going in the next 5 or ten years?
If I knew that, I’d be a millionaire. I don’t believe that labels are going to totally disappear. I think that until there is some “gatekeeper” to sort the wheat form the chaff, labels are going to be necessary. That said, people are buying less music and downloading more, so it’s hard to see how labels will survive such a hostile environment. I think bands will need to focus on cultivating smaller, but more dedicated fans if they want to pursue music professionally.
[SWB] How much time do you devote to promotion/business as opposed to being creative?
If you count time spent interacting with fans online or at shows, which I do, I spend much more time on the promotion side. It’s about finding a balance, though.
[SWB] Where can people go to find out more info about Assemblage 23?
Check out Assemblage23.com or Official Assemblage 23 on Facebook!
This has been one of the most ubiquitous hardware compressors in pro recording studios for about the last 30 years. After having personally used this software plugin extensively I can totally understand why. This is one fantastic comp with lots of appealing character. I particularly like it on snare and guitar. Walk through it’s features in this helpful tutorial video.