Philth Tips #14 – Mute the drums

I haven’t blogged for a while, but I have been writing an absolute ton of music over the summer while I have a break from my day job at the college. And more than anything I have been focusing on arrangement, making tracks interesting all the way through and avoiding looping/repeating stuff as much as possible. Here is my top tip for writing interesting arrangements:

mute the drums, and focus on everything else in your track….

There are two main reasons why I do this. First, drums are very tiring for your ears. All those transients, and lots of high frequency. As a tinnitus sufferer, I find it is nice to give my ears a rest to avoid them getting fatigued. But the most important reason you should mute your drums is so you can hear what the instruments are actually doing! In DnB the drums are always going to be right at the front of the mix, and they mask a lot of your other sounds. Yes, you need to put the work in and get your drums rocking. But even really good drums do not hold the attention for 5-6 minutes.

Once you mute the drums you get a better understanding of what your instruments are doing, and how they relate to each other. Here’s the challenge: can you make the track interesting and lively all the way through without relying on the energy of the drums?

Switching the drums off forces you to focus on the journey of your track. It doesn’t matter if you are writing the deepest liquid or the hardest neuro, your track should be evolving and keep the listener guessing from start to finish. When the drums and bass are playing it is too easy to just ‘roll it out’ and copy and paste whole 16 bar sections. But why would you just repeat the same section twice? You end up with what is effectively a really long loop, and if you don’t keep the listener on their toes then their brain will habituate and switch off.

Once your drums are muted, start soloing instruments and looking for pairs – two sounds that compliment each other both musically and in terms of frequency. It could be that the two sounds have textures that work well together, or you have found a nice call and response between the two melodies. I will move tracks up and down in the DAW until the pairs are next to each other. And I colour everything so I can see the arrangement more clearly. I think Ableton does this by default, but in Logic you should take a minute to give each sound it’s own colour and it is so much easier to read the arrange window.

When you have identified some pairs, try swapping them around to see how they interact with other parts. Soon you will have a better idea of all the possible combos within your track. I like to have pairs playing for alternate 16s, so that just as the listener has got used to the musical parts in a section, you make a switch and introduce a different combo. For example, a sampled piano with a complimentary pad for the first 16 after the drop, then answered by a strings and keys combo in the alternate 16. By not playing sounds for too long you leave the listener wanting more and encourage them to listen all the way through.

If you get it right you can then combine your pairs with the special element of a vocal or lead melody to really lift your track. Save a few special parts for the last 4 bars of a section and then every 16 and every 32 feels like it builds to a climax. You can also think about the elements in the way a band would – does the piano play during the verses or just the chorus? Let the keys play a solo in the 16 bars before the breakdown. Save your pad for the sections where you want to calm it down.

I put this technique into practice last night, which inspired me to write this article. I had been sent stems for a collaborative project, and once I had loaded the sounds into the right channels in my mix template, I went through the musical parts and looked for pairs. I then added some new parts of my own, and soon I had all the musical elements needed for a full tune. At this point I sketched out the arrangement in full, thinking about how the energy built up and down, some sections are busier and then drop down into a stripped section so it can build up again. You can’t play all your sounds all the time, so think about how they relate to each other and you can develop an arrangement that is progressive.

Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 03.08.00

I worked for 2-3 hours with no drums. I focused on the journey and had a track that kept me interested and changed enough to avoid the boredom of familiarity. When I finally switched the drums back on it had the desired effect – suddenly the track was full of energy and I was dancing in my chair! But most importantly it held my attention for 5 minutes, and if you’ve ever listened to one of my mixes you’ll know I have a very short attention span.

Give it a try and tell me what you think. Your ears will thank you, and hopefully you will put more focus on the structure and arrangement of your music and keep the listener locked in for your whole track.

 

Philth Tips #13 – Layering: combining sounds to create a thicker texture

In any form of electronic music, texture is just as important as the notes you are playing. Combining multiple layers can create a thick sound and interesting texture from simple musical ideas.

Pretty basic chords can sound much more exciting if they are played by sounds which fill the frequency spectrum and have some movement. By using EQ we can take the parts that we want from different sounds and mix them to seem like one pad.

Layering Pads.png

This video shows how I use this idea to make a full intro for a DnB track by layering a simple E minor chord with various pads. Please excuse my mumbling, coughing and occasionally covering the microphone. I’ve got a long way to go before I become a Youtube pro!!

Philth Tips #12 – mixing week 7 (creative FX)

I have spent a long time focusing on the fundamentals of mixing. It is vital that the first thing you do is balance your mix properly so that every sound has its own place. It’s only at this point that you can start to think about advanced techniques to bring your mix to life – the creative application of audio plug-ins.

The two main ways that FX can be used creatively:
Spatial FX – change the perceived position of a sound, create an impression of movement, depth, width.
Timbral FX – alter the tone/texture of the sounds in your mix. This can include subtle shifts in timbre and pitch, warped moving textures, thick gritty distortion.

 

Application of FX

The way you apply FX will great change how they affect the sound – as will the order in which you insert the FX. Audio passes through plug-ins from the top down – this means that the effects happen one after the other, with the signal being changed before it reaches the next plug-in in the chain. If you place EQ in the signal path then the next plug-in only affects the signal that is left after the EQ has been applied. This means you can apply EQ before a reverb for example, and only the frequencies that you desire will be affected by reverberation. Experiment with changing the order of your processing chain, sometimes it can make a massive difference.

In-Line FX – this means the FX is placed directly on the channel/bus and will alter the sound totally before it leaves the channel. In-line processing fundamentally changes a sound.
Parallel Processing – the FX is placed on a bus and aux sends are used to decide how much of the original signal to send to the bus. This means that the original signal plays unimpeded, with the option to decide how much signal goes to your FX, and how loud the affected signal is in your mix. You can then also apply multiple plug-ins to your Aux track without affecting the original signal, and you can also choose to place it in a different place in the stereo field – for example, a delay that only plays on the left.
Automation – you can use track automation to choose when and where to apply your FX. This could by using Bypass or Wet/Dry controls to selectively switch on your FX; automating an Aux Send level; automating the behaviour of the aux track itself.

 

Spatial FX

Creative FX 2 - spatial.png

Reverb – use reverb to manipulate depth. Automate reverb to suddenly push a sound into a new space.
Delay – very short delays further manipulate the impression of depth.
Delay can be used to thicken a sound. And of course, create the repeating ‘echo’ effect.
Stereo Imaging – these plugins take advance of psychoacoustics to manipulate phase. By altering the phase relationship in a sound it tricks the brain into hearing a ‘wider’ sound – but also means you will have phase problems in mono, so be careful.
Panning automation – move sounds around the stereo field to emphasise changes in the song.
Chorus/Modulation – chorus creates a double of a signal then delay it by a very short amount to manipulates phase. Other modulation plug-ins such as phasers apply similar principles to create a sound that appears to be moving.

 

 
Timbral FX

Creative FX 3 - timbral.png

Modulation – modulation plug-ins (phaser, chorus, flanger, ringshifter etc) also alter the frequency balance of a sound. This can range from a subtle thickening effect, right through to whooshing and swirling textures. Don’t worry about how they work (I don’t!) just try them out and see what interesting things they do to your audio. For example I like to use Logic’s ringshifter on the top layer of reece basses, to give the tops some movement that feels alive due to the randomness caused by the ringshifter.
Distortion – gentle saturation (for example Overdrive, Tube Distortion) thickens a sound by emphasising its natural harmonics – this is known as harmonic distortion. The other end of the scale is the fizzing, gritty, buzzing, screaming sound of hard distortion.
Amp Simulation – model the behaviour of a guitar amplifier to create a range of tones. Again this can range from subtle thickness to painful screaming tones.
EQ/Filters – we have used EQ to balance our levels. Automating EQ or filters enables us to choose to highlight sounds at important moments in a song.
Pitch – layer vocals for thickness, warp the pitch for dramatic effect.

When using these types of FX start off with presets so you can get an idea of the possibilities available to you. Give yourself an idea of how you can manipulate audio creatively, and bring your mixes to life.

Philth Tips #11 – mixing week 6 (dynamics – part 2)

Last week we looked at dynamics processors, in particular compressors. This week we will add some new tools, and consider how we can apply dynamics processing to groups of sounds.

 
Dynamics processors

Transient shaping – shape the Attack (the transient) and Release (the tail) of a sound. Particularly effective with drums to make them more pokey or tighter.

Noise gate – used to cut background sounds. The gate will only open when the signal goes over the threshold, so only the loud parts of a track pass through the gate. Very effective on live drums to remove the noisy background in between hits.

Saturation – using Overdrive and similar plugins will limit your sounds and also create harmonic distortion. This effectively makes things sounds thicker and fatter.

Limiting – stops signal going over 0db and clipping the channel. However be careful as running into a Limiter too hot will still cause distortion.

Clipping – some compressors have built-in Distortion. This enables you to clip the signal and squeeze it up to appear louder without leaving spiky transients.

 
Applications of compression

Buss compression
Using a compressor on a buss group will help to hold all the sounds together by reducing their dynamics and shaping their transients as a group rather than individually. For example – compressing layers of vocals to avoid sudden peaks; compressing all of your drums as a group to avoid peaks and also potentially make your drums pump. This is why people refer to buss compression as ‘glue’, sticking groups of sounds together.

To use this technique you simply need to route all your drums/vox/etc directly into a Bus track instead of going straight to the stereo output. Then when you apply plugins to this Bus they affect all of the incoming audio at the same time. Now a compressor will respond to your entire drum mix. You can setup the compressor to emphasise transients, to reduce dynamic range, to cut off any peaks…. all of the normal uses of compression but applied to your whole drum mix, processing it all together.

This also means you can apply Saturation or Limiting (or even both) at the end of your chain, which will cut off any peaks and recover some headroom. Then you can push your drums up so they appear louder in the mix without using up all of your headroom. My absolute favourite tool for this is Camel Phat at the end of the drum chain to give the drums an extra squeeze.

 
Parallel compression
This technique involves mixing a heavily compressed signal back into the original dry signal. Most commonly used on drums (for extra impact and energy) and vocals (solid signal with the impression of dynamic range).
Set up an auxiliary channel and use aux sends to choose which signals are routed to the compressor. You can then apply aggressive compression to your signal (no dynamics on vocals/exaggerated pumping drums) and use the aux fader to mix this signal with your dry signal. I normally set up a final bus to group the dry and parallel signals together for a final bit of control.

When writing DnB I use parallel compression on my drums in a variety of ways, depending on the style of track.
For minimal or techy tracks I will push the compressor on the parallel chain to emphasise transients (hard compression, Attack/Release set to let the drums poke before they are compressed), I will then double the effect by using an Enveloper to cut the tails and push the initial attack. When you mix this back into your original drum mix you end with a very tight and snappy sound, spiky drums.
For liquid I will often go in a completely different direction, and use the parallel compression to bring out the shuffles of my breakbeats by having a very short attack then timing the release to let the shuffles jump out. Using the Soft Clipping feature in the Logic compressor will squeeze the drums more and result in the shuffles appearing to pop out of the drum mix. This can then be mixed with the dry signal to achieve a swinging or pumping effect.

Dynamics - parallel compression

This first screenshot shows how the two drum busses are mixed into a final drum bus. This Drum Master channel makes it very easy to adjust the volume of the drums in relation to the rest of your mixdown.

The Parallel is compressed aggressively, with a fast attack and release to ensure all transients have a POP. The Enveloper is pushing the first 10-20ms of the transients to bring out more poke, which is then clipped with the Overdrive.

The Drum Mix is compressed gently, a little squeeze after letting the first 50-60ms punch. Then the UAD plugins are a Tube Amp for saturation, a Neve EQ which is bringing up the bass of the kick with a low-shelf, and finally, Overdrive to catch peaks and squeeze a bit more.

On the Drum Master there is EQ on the whole drum mix, in this instance to push the mids, and finally Limiting to push up the perceived volume while avoiding any peaks.The result is the brick wall of drums you will see below.

In this second screenshot, you see the effect that each stage of processing has on the audio. The end result is thick fat drums that are controlled by the Limiter.

Dynamics - processing drums.png

 

Philth Tips #10 – mixing week 5 (dynamics – part 1)

I had a break for a few weeks while I was away. Now I am back at work, and back in geek mode. This week and next week I am teaching my students about dynamics processing. That means compression! The following are my notes from the first class. There will be a second part next week when we delve further into the application of these ideas….

Dynamics = loud and quiet

Dynamics processors control the amplitude of your audio, and enable you to shape sounds by manipulating their natural dynamics.
Compression

FACT – compression does not make sounds louder. A compressor attenuates (reduces) the signal. It is only when you use the Make Up Gain afterwards that a sound becomes louder.
Compressors can be used to reduce the dynamic range of an audio signal, which can then be boosted thereby creating an impression of a louder overall signal. This is what is meant when you hear that a compressor ‘makes things louder’.

There are 5 key features you will find on every compressor:
Threshold – this determines when the compressor starts working. When the amplitude of the signal goes over the threshold the compressor starts working.
Ratio – how hard the compressor works.
Attack – how quickly the compressor start working (grips the signal).
Release – how long the compressor takes to go back to zero compression (lets go).
Makeup Gain – this boosts the signal after the compression as taken place.

Other features you may find on your compressor.
Knee – the curve between compression and no compression
Mix – enables you to mix the compressed signal with the dry signal. This effectively enables you to use parallel compression to combine dry and wet signals.
Distortion – many hardware compressors naturally create harmonic distortion (the nice kind!). This feature on the Logic compressor enables you to emulate this natural distortion and effectively saturate the signal.
Saturation = squash = thicker signal.
Drive – similar to the drive on a filter, this will saturate the signal.

Applications of compression

Controlling signal with wide dynamic range
Some signal, such as vocals, will have a very wide dynamic range. This means that some of the quieter words may get lost in the mix, or the loudest parts are too powerful and overpower your mix. In this instance, you will use a compressor to reduce dynamic range and create a more level signal. Be careful though – completely removing dynamic range will suck the life out of the performance.

Look for the loudest part of your signal and set the threshold and ratio so that this section of the signal is controlled (without completely killing it). The attack and release will determine how aggressive the compression sounds. No attack will means the compressor acts immediately but also kills the natural transients of the signal. The following three examples show the ways we can use compression to control vocals.

Dynamics - compression - no attack
In this example, the compressor has been set with no attack at all (0ms). This means that all of the transients are being lost, and as the compressor’s threshold was set pretty high, all the vocals are being squashed so much that there is practically no dynamic range. This vocal will cut through a mix, but there is no sense of the vocal building up and it will sound very unnatural. The louder parts are simply being squashed more.

Dynamics - compression - fast attack.png

In the second example, the attack time has been pushed up to around 80ms. This means that some transient information is getting through (although you can see some strange spikes which appear to have been caused by the compression), retaining some of the original delivery. The threshold was also reduced slightly so the compression was less aggressive, and the result is a more dynamic vocal. However these spikes are definitely a problem.

Dynamics - compression - soft clipping

In this third example, the attack and release were left the same, but the Distortion feature of the Logic compressor has been engaged. This Soft Clipping has meant that the spikes in the previous example are gone, and the quieter moments are squeezed up a bit louder. This has resulted in more headroom, but still an impression of dynamic range. What you can’t hear from the screenshot is the warmth or thickness that harmonic distortion provides to an audio signal.

Shaping individual sounds
A compressor can be used to manipulate and accentuate the natural dynamics of a sound. For example drums… you can use a short attack (30-100ms) to allow the initial hit (transient) of a drum to hit as normal then the compressor grips the signal. You can shape the front of your drum hits to emphasise the first punch. This can result in very punchy tight drums, but also very spiky drums which will need to be controlled afterwards.

You can achieve similar effects by using a transient shaper to control the attack and release of a drum hit. Combining both tools give you maximum control over the shape of your drums.

Philth Tips #9 – look after your ears

I go to sleep every night with this App playing white noise (my favourite is rainfall) next to my head. Why? Because thanks to such legendary sound systems as The End and Fabric, my ears ring all the time.

I have tinnitus. It sucks. I haven’t heard silence for about 10 years. If you attend clubs regularly get yourself some earplugs, I use ACS Customs which are moulded to my ears, but you can also get ER20’s for £10-20 and they’re fine. If you already have tinnitus look for this Phonak App and hopefully it will help you to sleep!

It’s Tinnitus Awareness Week this week. Have a read and learn more here:

https://www.tinnitus.org.uk/taw2017

This is a major problem in our industry. We spend every weekend in nightclubs and during the week batter our ears in the studio. Of course we should turn it down and monitor at sensible levels but it’s not that simple when you’re in a club. This article from UKF talks to some industry leaders about their experiences with tinnitus:

https://ukf.com/words/tinnitus-vs-drum-bass/18096
Optical has always been a hero of mine, a pioneer of the scene. To hear that tinnitus almost ended his career should be enough to make you wake up and start looking after your ears. 

I have been using ACS Pro 17’s for about 5 years or so. I’m no audiologist but if you want to ask me anything about earplugs or tinnitus please feel free to get in touch, I’m happy to try to help out.

https://www.acscustom.com/uk/products/hearing-protection

Philth Tips #8 – mixing week 4 (EQ)

The latest in my mixing series talks about EQ. However if you think I am going to tell you the perfect frequency to EQ your kick drum you will be very disappointed! Every song is different and you need to be open-minded in your approach to EQ, there are no set rules that you can learn as a shortcut. Sorry! (not sorry)

EQ (Equalisation) is the tool that enables us to shape the frequency balance of our tracks – sculpting sounds by cutting or boosting frequencies.

EQ can be used to give each sound it’s own unique space in the mix. But it can also be used to help sounds fit together, to give a mix a steady tonal balance. For example you don’t want one really bright/harsh sound in a warm organic sounding acoustic mix, it will stand out in a bad way and affect the listener’s perception of the authenticity of the track. Likewise you will need to work with EQ to make real instruments fit together with shiny synth parts in electronic music, warm pianos are lovely but if they fight your sub and sound dull/muddy compared to your other sounds then something needs to change.

Think about your song and EQ appropriately depending on what you are trying to achieve.

Do you want to create separation, so that each sound stands out individually?
Do you want your sounds to sit together and sounds like they are in the same room?
Do you want to do both of these things at the same time!?

By identifying the frequency content of each sound we can emphasise it’s sonic characteristics to make it stand out, or we make can sounds sit down inside the mix. An important thing to remember – all EQ is relative to the rest of the song. You are trying to fit a collection of sounds together into a cohesive whole. Don’t spend all your time EQing sounds in Solo mode – they need to be EQ’d in the context of your song. Each decision you make will have a knock-on effect on the relationship between all of the sounds in your mix, so the longer you spend in Solo getting the ‘perfect’ tone, the more likely you are to be moving your sound away from what the overall mix needs.

Each song requires a different approach to EQ, there are no hard and fast rules that apply to every track so please try to ignore information on the internet telling you that you ‘must’ low-cut your kick at 80hz or whatever. Why? How is your kick going to have any depth if you hack all of the bass frequencies out?? I love a thick bassy kick that hits me in my chest, and then I can use precise EQ to ensure there is still space for my sub notes.

Every song is different, so make decisions relative to the song that you are working on. However as more of a general rule – CUT before you BOOST. Reducing/removing frequencies makes space, increasing frequencies adds volume and fills up your mix very quickly.

EQ Techniques

Cleaning sounds – carefully removing frequencies which are of no benefit to your mix. Generally this will involve tight cuts, not wide bands. Be careful not to overdo it – you will suck the life out of a sound. Also try to avoid sweeping a notch through the frequency spectrum – everything sounds bad when you boost it by 24db! If you can’t hear a problem don’t go looking for one.

Making space – when two sounds are occupying a similar frequency range they often tend to mask each other, they will sound like they are fighting for attention in your mix.. Identify the key frequency area that makes one of the sounds stand out – then gently reduce these frequencies on the other sound.

Tone/Timbre adjustments – if you want to affect the overall tone of a sound, normally you will use wider cuts/boosts, but be gentle. 2-3db will make a massive difference. Identify the frequency band that has desired effect on the timbre, and use a wide band to bring that area up or down.

EQ Tools

High/Low Cut: completely removes all the frequencies above/below the cutoff point. You can often choose the slope of the cut. Be careful – extreme cuts change the phase behavior of your audio and will have an affect all the way across the spectrum. A low-cut on your kick can mess up the attack as well as remove the bass.

eq-3
Everything below the cut-off point is removed. The purple area shows what is left. In this instance this will cut rumbling bass frequencies.

High/Low Shelf: reduce/boost all the frequencies above/below the cutoff point. The Q will determine the curve and the behaviour of the EQ at the cutoff point. This is useful to shape timbre without completely removing frequencies.

eq-4
The red area shows how a low-shelf reduces everything below the cut-off point. I often prefer a shelf to roll off the sub of a kick drum, leaving the round bottom but not obstructing room for the sub.

Bell: cut/boost in a specific frequency band. These bands can be moved to choose which area they affect, often anywhere on the spectrum. Q makes the band tighter or wider depending on what you are trying to achieve.

eq-5
The blue area shows a bell with a wide Q (bandwidth).

Types of EQ

Parametric – you choose the freq bands, and are able to shape the Q (width) of the bands. Use for precision cuts.
Graphic EQ – a series of fixed bands across the frequency spectrum. Useful for pulling out problem frequencies or creating a wide tonal change.
Single Band EQ – useful to cut whole areas from a sound (usually top/bottom)
Console emulations – older mixing desks would often have EQ bands that were fixed or had a restricted range. These EQ’s are great for applying colour to a sound (warmth, brightness etc) with wide boosts.

eq-1

The high-shelf on this Neve EQ doesn’t have the option to choose the frequency band – it just makes thing brighter!

eq-2
Console emulations can provide character and warmth that a digital parametric EQ is designed to avoid.

I will often use parametric EQ’s to remove or tame any problem frequencies (most EQ’s have a built in analyser so you can locate any rogue peaks), and then use a nice console emulation – or ideally a real analogue EQ – for wide boosts to affect the overal timbre. Cut with precision, then boost with your ears.