Thursday, December 30, 2004

Mixing, production, beats, and miscellaneous music stuff

First the miscellaneous stuff: if you want to do electronic music on a computer and you have the computer, you need three primary things: an instrument to computer interface, some music production software, and some instruments and/or microphones. A "starter kit" is not that expensive. You can get an interface, instrument (keyboard) and software bundle at M-Audio, as well as mics and even loop libraries. You can do this easily for under $500. Compare this to the cost of a fairly decent guitar/amp or keyboard/amp combo.

All of this assumes that you know how to play, sing and/or program beats, and also that you know how to mix. Because I've gone through the various metamorphoses as 'garageband that no one wants to hear', to 'cover band trying to throw in originals when no-one's looking' as well as the 'all original band no one wants to hire', I have some instruments both analog and digital that have facilitated my re-invention as 'independent recording artist whose self-produced CDs are for sale on the internet'. (Clearly, I am not convinced that no-one wants to hear my music, but this is my issue.)

Mixing is maybe the most fun. What is absolutely the most fun is coming up with a tune over some beats and maybe a bassline or chord progression or drone, then mumbling syllables to the tone that suggest words, then capturing those words and hammering them into lyrics, THEN singing it back and adding in layers, THEN absolUTEly the best is getting your voice to sound like it's really glossy and solid.

That last part is either very easy, if you have a voice like Alicia Keys or the singer from Jimmy Eat World, or not so easy. It is less easy for me, I am still working on it and have posted a couple of tracks with vocals but none that I am completely pleased with. However, I have been working over the last week and think I have found several key pieces and have produced some relatively strong vocal tracks as a result.

Here's what I found to be the key: 1) phantom powered condenser mic, 2) tube pre amp, 3) let the tube warm up, 4) experiment with mic to source placement: you don't necessarily need or want to be hitting the diaphragm head on at point blank range 5) firm but gentle use of compression, 6) judicious use of the "pre" send/return to run effects, and 7) the effects to use are slight 'doubling' delay (10ms< slight <100ms) and appropriate reverb (that it, providing warm ambience, not lost-in-cave-ness). Use 100% wet mix on the effects.

Both dry and wet pre-send go to the master out, or to the same stereo group if you've got a board/virtual deck that can to that.

Also, applying EQ to the "dry compressed only" track only, also a gate if you need to drop the noise, and get it to sound as good and clean as you can. Pulling back on the overall level of the dry track and running the same amount or *just a little more* through the pre-send as you do through the dry track. Both outs are panned to the same location in the mix.

The dry track will anchor the vocal in the mix, and the wet pre-send (which did not get EQ or compression) causes a reinforcement of the nice stuff you did with the EQ, while still presenting the pre-EQ'ed natural voice *as a doubling* due to the slight delay. If you need, slap some compression on the return track to keep the levels steady.

When you're using software that allows quick application of effects into the signal chain, the above is not hard at all.

So the vocals are sounding not bad so far, I will come back in a couple of days after getting away from it to really get a fresh impression.

Also, mixing: center the kick, center the bass, center the vocals, pan one keyboard left, the other right, if you have guitars put them to the right and left of the drums, maybe move the keys out further, if you have ambience or string/drone type stuff wrap that around the back with heavier reverb. If that doesn't suit you, move some stuff around a bit, but don't move the freaking kick or the bass, that's just irritating. Some software allows you to 'set the stage' with the instruments, basically that's what you're doing with levels, panning an reverb.

Once you come up with a quick draft of the image, to get levels the best: *put on headphones*, MONO the headphones, don't turn it up too loud. Then set the levels up, front to back. Click back to stereo-- boom, things should be nice. THEN you can really fine tune the image, maybe you fine you need to add EQ. If so, Rinse, repeat the mono/stero trick if needed.

Speaking of Peter Gabriel, a nice interview with him in Future Music magazine. He is doing mixes in 5.1 for audio DVD, likening the difference between this immersed listening experience and stereo to "having sex as opposed to watching other people have sex". This is par for the course, I'd say this is likely the way the major record companies will start to go more and more, DVD also provides video entertainment as well, which means the gap between indie and major is about to widen once again-- like when indie meant "cassette" and label meant "CD". I could easily see doing DVD audio in 5.1, but video is a whole other endeavor.

Now, ok, so I'm kind of happy with the vocals, happier than I've been in a while. The songs/lyrics are a little 'quirky' but that's kind of where I'm at. There are no real 90s or 00s modern analogues to singer/songwriter/lyricists who have pushed the lyrical envelope like Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, David Bowie, or Lou Reed (or going back a bit further, Jim Morrison.. or further still, Lennon/McCartney, for that matter).

You might say Robert Smith... ok, I'll buy that, but not to the same level as these others. I guess I'm not supposed to say Morrisey in the same sentence, I find the words he uses very good, I find his musical assemblage of them very much too wandering.

I guess as an indie artist I should not liken myself to any precursor and assiduously avoid labels... but anyway, of all of these, I think that to even exhibit a fleeting glimpse of a synthesis of Gabriel and Byrne with tinges of Cure: intellect, passion, a bit of sadness, a bit of mania, a bit of social perspective, a bit of 'critical distancing' and a bit of humor... that would be incredibly cool.

To achieve what Lennon/McCartney did, well, that will likely never happen again and it will definitely not happen to me: an unbelievable breadth of lyrical observation and involvement.

Yeh, ok I didn't mention Bob Dylan as far as lyrics-- didn't want to go that way far back. Also, apparently Bruce Springsteen was the most recent "next Bob Dylan" according to some music press types.

thanks for reading, I'll be posting more frequently now that I'm done with the more intense recording. Don't forget to visit the Utenzil site, as well as other GB artists.


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