7 posts categorized "DAW: Recording and Mixing"

November 19, 2012

Two Mixing Techniques to Help You with Your Overall Drum Sound

Using Side-Chain Compression and Parallel Processing to Get the Drums in Your Beats Just Right


Drum production in hip hop is about more than selecting the right sounds and putting them in the right places. Having a wide range of mixing techniques at your disposal goes a long way in helping you get that overall drum sound that you’re after.

This article explores two mixing techniques that I often use along with my drum production techniques. These techniques will help give your drums clarity and punch. For example, I used these techniques on my remix of “Tower of Cards” by Mr J Medeiros, which I include below, along with accompanying audio and images to help you understand the processes involved. The images are taken from Logic Pro but the principles apply to any DAW.

Side-Chain Compression

Compression is one of the most commonly used processors, yet it is commonly misused. (You can make or break a track with compression!) Essentially, compression reduces the dynamic range of a signal, making the louder things quieter and the quieter things louder. For further reading on compression and parameters go here: http://www.beattips.com/beattips/recording-mixing-and-mastering/

A compressor begins reducing the volume of a signal when the input source goes above the threshold. The input source is typically the signal you want to compress. However, most compressors have side-chain (sometimes called ‘key’) inputs. A side-chain input allows you to use another channel to control the compressor, as opposed to the channel the compressor is inserted on. Side-chain compression is heard on the vast majority of dance records with a compressor acting on the whole mix, and being controlled by a side-chained kick drum. This ducks (reduces the volume of) the signal of the entire mix when the kick drum plays. To hear this in fully effect listen to Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’

Low frequency muddiness is always an issue in hip hop. You want to get the most out of your kick drum and bass, without them having to compete against each other for space in the mix. Side-chain compression can be really helpful in cleaning up the low end of your mix and providing that space. A common application is to use a compressor with a side-chain input from your kick drum to duck the bass. This enables the kick to poke through the mix and not be masked by the bass.

First off, add a compressor to your bass channel and select the side-chain input from your kick channel. In Logic the side-chain input is selected in the top right corner of the compressor. To ensure the compressor reduces the signal of the bass quickly, use a fast attack (under 10ms) and set the response to peak level not RMS (average level). The release time is important in deciding how quickly you want the bass to return to its original volume after the kick drum has stopped playing. I have used a quick release time of 9.5ms. By juggling the threshold and ratio the bass signal is reduced by 5dB when the kick plays. This is a subtle amount of gain reduction, but enough to ensure the kick is not masked by the bass. Listen to the examples below to hear the drum and bass mix with and without side-chain compression. Notice how the kick pokes through the mix when side-chain compression is used.

Bass without Side-chain compression: BASS_S-C_CompressionOFF.mp3

Bass with Side-chain compression: BASS_S-C_CompressionON.mp3

Parallel processing

Parallel processing is another technique used to creatively add punch to your drums. It allows you to have a dry (unaffected) signal and a wet (affected) signal playing at the same time. In hip hop, it’s common to utilize parallel compression (also known as NY Compression) on the drum stem (sub group), or even entire mix during the mastering stage. If applied to the drum stem the result is extra power and RMS level without losing the dynamic variation and transient attack of the drum hits. Some producers will also add shelving EQ in conjunction with compression to bring out the low and high frequency content.

Parallel processing isn’t limited to compression. You can use all sorts of processors and effects creatively to blend in with your unprocessed signal. In this remix I have used parallel processing on the drum stem, to compress, distort and EQ the signal. To set this up in Logic Pro, I sent my individual drum channels to a stereo aux channel (labeled ‘Dry Drums’) to create the drum stem. Via a bus send, I have routed the drum stem to another stereo aux channel (labeled ‘Para Drums’) ready for parallel processing (see image above/below/left/right).

The compressor on the parallel processed channel is reducing the dynamic range of the drums by 15dB. This is heavy compression and is used to increase the average level of the drum track. Distortion is then added through Logic’s inbuilt guitar amp simulator ‘Amp Designer’. This is giving the drums the crunchy character needed for the track. Using EQ, I have scooped out 12dB centered around 1.5kHz as the Amp Designer is adding unwanted resonances in the mid-range. The volume fader of the parallel channel is lowered; it isn’t intended to dominate the drum mix, rather add depth, character and reinforce the unprocessed drum stem.

Listen to the examples below to hear the drum stem with and without parallel processing. Notice how the average level is louder and the distortion adds texture, depth and crunch to the drums. This is all achieved without losing the dynamic range and transient attack of the drum hits.

Unprocessed Drums: DRUMS_Parallel_ProcessingOFF.mp3

Parallel Processed Drums: DRUMS_Parallel_ProcessingON.mp3

Like many production techniques, make sure that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it before you begin, as this will help you achieve better results.

You can listen to the full track in the player below.

Dave Walker (Imperial)

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

December 15, 2011

Analog Sensibilities, Digital Realities: What Can the Right Signal Flow Do for Your Sound?

The Advantages of Hybrid Tracking and Mixing


Signal flow is an important part of beatmaking. Yet not all beatmakers invest much thought into the signal chains that they use. Below is a discussion between two BeatTips Community (TBC) members and myself about this particular analog sensibility/digital reality issue.

Pete Marriott

I'm not sure hybrid is the right term but hell I'm using it anyway to describe my practice of using analog gear like my Tascam M-2600 MKII console to track and mix my sounds to and from the computer. I know my mixing desk is not a Neve, API, Harrison, MCI or SSL but I love the sound I get from it because I know how to make it work for me.

I went back to my analog roots because I needed to return to the kind of workflow that makes sense to me. I didn't grow up behind a DAW system, it was something that I progressed to from my early days of cutting tape on a block with a razor blade to do my edits. It was hands on and much easier on my eyes because they weren't glued to a computer screen all day long. I needed to twist knobs and slide faders and push mute and solo buttons and insert patch cables again because clicking the mouse became mundane and it gave me a case of carpel tunnel.

But this not a "I hate digital" post because that is not true at all. I love the power of what I can do in a DAW. I just needed to have a strong sense of what I grew up on and the current technology so I came up with what I call the Hybrid solution to my problem. I don't know if I'm alone in taking this route but it would surely be nice to know if I'm in good company.


My signal flow for making beats:

Technics 1200--->Vestax PMC 07--->SoundCraft Folio Rac Pac mixer--->MPC 2000xl/S900/EPS-16--->SoundCraft Folio Rac Pac (post fader direct outputs)--->Digi 003R--->Pro Tools---> From here depending on the track I will bounce out a internal layback and sample rate convert.

Then open it in a new session 44.1K 24bit atempt to master the track add dither and bounce out a 44.1K 16bit PCM file.

I sometimes go out of the digi 003 into a cassette tape recorder and record to a cassette then fromt he tape recorder go back into my mixer then to a stereo track in pro tools and bounce out from there.

I eventually want to get a pro 2 or 4 track reel to reel tape machine and a pro cd burner (these are high on my music production grocery list.)


Pete, Brandon,

You are certainly not alone. Many beatmakers (and other music-makers) use a signal flow similar to the one you describe here. Like the both of you, I certainly appreciate the power and flexibility that a DAW offers. I use Pro Tools, and I can not stress how much it has helped to streamline my recording process, not to mention the fact that it makes it possible for me to record everything from my home studio.

Before I began using Pro Tools, I was locked into a time consuming and rather expansive studio routine. In order to get my beats/songs on to "tape" or to even secure a better quality CD mix, I would have to book studio time, then lug my gear in. In some cases, I was able to rent my setup, which at the time was an Akai MPC 60 II and an Akai S950. But more often than not, I simply brought my MPC and S950 in with me. And while bringing my gear in was one problem, having a reference mix for the engineer was yet another.

In order to get a reference mix in my home studio, I'd have to record my beats straight to CD (and before that to *cassette*). But after DAWs like Pro Tools became more accessible—and more affordable—, I cautiously invested, and soon embraced them as a viable alternative to my old "studio routine." (I suspect in this regard, I'm certainly not alone.)

Today I can't imagine trying to do what I do without Pro Tools, or a comparable DAW. If not for the sheer savings in both time and cost, I've embraced DAWs because of the level of control it grants me over my recording process. And while you might *lose* some of the sonic essence (not noticeable to the average listener) when recording into a computer as opposed to let's say analog tape, I have found—just as you have, and others like DJ Toomp—that I can maintain and simulate that sonic quality (specifically the "umph" and warmth) by tracking through my analog Mackie 32/8 mixing console.

I route all of my gear (external samplers, keyboard, DJ mixer—which absorbs my turntable, CD player, and cassette deck) into my Mackie console. From my Mackie console, I track directly into my Digidesign Digi 002 rackmount interface, which of course, then goes into my computer (Mac G5).

This hybrid approach (I too refer to it that way) allows me to combine and utilize techniques from both the analog and digital realms. In particular, this approach gives me the added advantage of being able to instantly reference the sound that initially comes through my console with the new reality of how Pro Tools "captures" it. In this way, I'm able to mix "in the box" (inside of Pro Tools), in a way that matches—as close as possible—the sonic essence that I'm able to produce through my analog console.

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

September 21, 2011

BeatTips Tutorial: Sampling Live Instrumentation: Guitar Riffs

Sampling Your Live Playing and Making It Sound Like a "Sample", Not Just Live Instrumentation Re-Recorded


Perhaps one of the most misused and misrepresented terms in beatmaking is “live instrumentation”. What does live instrumentation actually mean, anyway? On the surface, one might be quick to say that live instrumentation is the making of music without the use of samples. But given the fact that a great deal of so-called live instrumentation relies on the use of samples (e.g. sound modules, software samplers with stock samples, etc.) I’m not sure that’s an appropriate description. But I concede that generally speaking, live instrumentation simply refers to playing and arranging, in the traditional sense, any series of “notes” in a pattern or sequence.

As it stands today, there are those in the beatmaking community who elevate the use of live instrumentation above the use of sampling, as if sampling's primitive and "unoriginal". An absurd notion, of course, especially when you consider the fundamentals of beatmaking and hip hop/rap music and the reality of modern music production tools’ use of samples. But nonetheless, there are those who tow the generic line that live instrumentation is original, and sampling is not; or that live instrumentation is more original than sampling—you get the picture! That being said, how should sampling live instrumentation be looked at? Further, does the process of sampling live instrumentation belong in the live instrumentation side of things or in the sampling column?

While some may stubbornly debate this, my view is that sampling live instrumentation is just as original and creative as any other beatmaking method. I draw no elitist or fundamentalist distinction. Moreover, I see the process of sampling live instrumentation as clearly being a fusion of both concepts and compositional processes, wherein the more skills and understanding that you have, the more likely you’ll be able to express your ideas in the style and sound that you want.

But how do you bring these two worlds together? That depends on you and the style and sound that you’re going for. My approach is always to convert my live instrumentation into the sampling form. In other words, whatever I play out live, in the traditional sense, I sample it (and chop it) then fuse it (combine it, blend it) together with other samples—either traditional vinyl record samples or other live instrumentation converted samples. Thus, in the tutorial below, I break down my method for converting live guitar riffs into samples.

Step 1: Understand and Respect What a Riff Is and Can Be

A riff is a short series of notes played in a pattern. A riff can be simple or complex. Further, riffs are most commonly associated with the guitar (“guitar riff”) but in fact, they can also be played on other instruments, e.g. a piano riff, a sax riff, etc. All popular forms of music employ riffs, and depending on the style, sound, and form, riffs can be used as an accompanying sub-melody (motif or melody within a melody) or as the basis for which an entire song is built upon. Because hip hop/rap music is a fundamentally rhythmic, grooved-based music form, riffs often play a central role in the composition of beats (in The BeatTips Manual, I discuss this concept, as well as hip hop’s/rap’s unique relationship with Western music theory, much more in detail).

Step 2: Live Instrumentation: Play Some Riffs on My Fantom S 88 Keyboard Work Station
(Note: You don’t have to use a keyboard, you can use a MIDI controller and a standalone software sound module like Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig to do the same thing.)

Before I began playing some riffs, I adjust the filter envelope on my Fantom. Usually, I’ll adjust the ARP RANGE and ARP ACCENT. I always leave the release and tempo the same as part of my custom “preset”. After I’ve made these adjustments, I play riffs based on the ideas and themes that I have in mind at the moment. For the audio example I included below, I had a scene from a 1970s movie in my head. It was a brief scene really, nothing major, just two cats walk into a pool hall. But the background music that was playing when they walked in was dope, so I used that as inspiration. I didn’t try to mimic the notes; Instead, I went for the style, sound, and feel of that entire scene. After I play a riff that fits what I'm going for, I hit the "Skip Back Sampling" button on my Fantom and record it.

Step 3: Get Riff into Pro Tools for Effects Processing

At this stage, depending on the riff itself and the type of idea I’ve got going, I will do either one of two things: (a) I Record the riff directly into Pro Tools (my DAW of choice); or (b) I sample the riff into my Akai MPC 4000, loop it, then record the sampled riff from the MPC 4000 into Pro Tools. (Either way, I'm routing through my Mackie analog mixing console into Pro Tools.) For the example that I’ve included in this post, I recorded the riff directly into Pro Tools.

Step 4: Track the Riff on Repeat, Then Duplicate the Track

Here, I try to give myself at least 50 seconds of the riff on repeat; this way I can work the effects as I listen to what the riff is doing, all the while I’m getting a better picture of how I should flip the riff, once the effects are set. After I’ve recorded the riff into a Pro Tools track, I duplicate the track and apply all the effects on the duplicate, leaving the source riff track as is. This allows for quick A and B references. (Note: This becomes particularly important when I make multiple duplicates).

Step 5: Work in the Effects

Usually, I only use three effects (plug-ins) on guitar riffs: reverb, 7-band EQ, and compression. (In Guitar Rig you could go even further with it, adding distortion and other effects.) For reverb, I like using a “large room” setting because it gives me the dusty airiness that I’ll need to make a riff from today sound old and in line with the types of vinyl record samples I like to use. In other words, I use reverb keeping in mind the overall texture and feel of the beat that I’m going to be making.

Step 6: Sample the Riff Into My MPC 4000

Once the effects are set, I sample the riff into my MPC 4000.

Step 7: I. Gets. Busy!!!

At this stage, I’m in complete sampling mode, so everything moves FAST. After chopping the riff to my liking (the initial chopping), I put it in a sequence, then loop it. I listen to the loop of the chopped riff to see what direction to go in. Do I pitch it up or pitch it down? It always depends on the style, feel, and sound that I’m going for. With the example below, I went with the “pool hall” theme from the movie that inspired the riff, which prompted me to pitch the riff up. At this point, I also made one more chop, completely cutting off the tail of the original guitar riff.

After I got the pitch of the riff right, I built a drum framework around it, using one of my 5 default kicks, “kick 4 S950”; a snare, “snare bucket lid” (yes, I literally made a snare from striking a small bucket with a lid on top, combined with my “snare 34”); two hi-hats (two strikes of my “hat vintage”); and my signature “gunshot snare”.

Once I had the drum framework rocking, I added in a piano/bass stab that I sampled off of a vinyl record. To make the guitar riff and the piano/bass stab sound as though they came from the same time and space (not necessarily the same record), I threw a notch filter on the guitar riff to blend and tuck it, then I opened up some treble on the channel where the piano/bass stab was being outputted (I could have used the Lo-Hi Pass filter on my MPC 4000 to get the same effect, but I was moving fast; I knew where this beat was headed and I wanted to finish so I could write a rhyme to it).

After a couple a couple EQ adjustments on the Mackie console, I dumped the beat into Pro Tools. Back in Pro Tools, I did some additional EQ’ing, created a master track, and bounced the beat to disc. Done…

Note: Below I have included both the original guitar riff as I played it and the beat made using the sampled riff. (Next week I might post the rhyme vocal I did for this beat)

The music below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship

Pool Hall Guitar Riff (Live riff played by Sa'id)

Pool Hall beat (prod. by Sa'id)

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

August 15, 2011

BeatTips Shop Talk: !llmind and the Evolution of His Production Setup

From Time-Consuming Workflow to a Faster Means of Making Beats, for !llmind, the Sensibility Has Always Remained the Same

By !LLMIND, as told to AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Every week or so, I get together with !llmind, acclaimed beatmaker/producer and BeatTips.com Senior Contributor, for our regular “check-in” discussions. We talk about a lot of things, but of course, the conversations invariably shift to beatmaking. From the nuts and bolts of the craft; to theoretical concepts; to gear and equipment; to the business of beatmaking; to the beatmaking tradition's history, we talk shop about it all.

For this BeatTips Shop Talk, I thought it would be a good idea for !llmind to give a detailed account of the evolution of his production setup. For one thing, there's been some misinformation (and much speculation) about what !llmind actually uses and has used. Also, I believe other beatmakers/producers can always learn from the gear paths and choices of fellow beatmakers/producers. Therefore, what follows is a meticulous portrait of the setup changes !llmind has made throughout the last decade or so. Keep in mind, every piece of gear and software program and subsequent change helped !llmind cultivate his beatmaking skills and his overall style and sound. Finally, although this BeatTips Shop Talk is, on the surface, about !llmind's production setup evolution, it also reveals a lot about his process and willingness to always conduct research (as well as his consistent focus on extending his learning).

BeatTips: List all of the gear and equipment currently in your production studio, along with its significance, and why you have it, and how you use it.
!llmind: OK…So my main piece, I pretty much incorporate everyday when I’m in the studio…well, first the brain of the entire setup is a MacBook Pro, which I carry around with me wherever I go. And basically, I have a MacBook Pro with Pro Tools 8, which I use to sequence, sample, chop, edit; everything is in Pro Tools. All of my sounds are from VSTs and RTAS plug-ins, a lot of that stuff is from Native Instruments-based; you know, Komplete 7, Kontakt 4. Then I have XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums and a basic Oxygen 49 MIDI keyboard (semi-weighted) that I use. A pair of Sure SRH940 monitor headphones that I use a lot, especially when I’m on the road. And my home monitors are KRK Rokit 5’s, and I have a JBL sub-bass, 12” sub-bass. These are the tools that I use everyday. All of my sounds are literally on a hard drive. So I have just hundreds of gigabytes of sound files and patches and instruments. But then I also play a little bit of guitar and bass. Also, I have an Ensoniq ASR-10, which has been my main piece for the past, I’d say, 12 years now.

The ASR-10 is kind of where it all started. It was there in the beginning when I first kind of started to make beats. I learned a lot from using it. And it’s just one of those things, you know, that I just thought about a few times…I thought about possibly selling it, you know, or putting it into storage. But it just has this nostalgia to it. I have this J-Dilla sticker on my ASR-10. It’s been there for a while. It’s just one of things that I don’t want to get rid of, ever. So it’s sitting there [in plain site, actually a level below the Oxygen, easily accessible] collecting dust. But at the same time, it’s there. Just looking at it pushes me forward.

BeatTips: So what was your very first production setup?
!llmind: That’s funny. My first, first production setup, if you go back to when I was 13, the first keyboard that I actually learned how to make beats on was a Roland KR4500. Now, this is a keyboard, if you go to Google and look it up, it’s one of those “home”, MIDI electronic keyboards. And back then, I remember my pops said he bought for like $7,000.00, something crazy. And it’s just this big thing, it’s really heavy. And that’s how much those keyboards used to cost back then. So that was the first piece that I used where I actually learned how to use MIDI. And I didn’t know that I was doing it. You know, it was just kind of this keyboard that had a sequencer and a bunch of sounds; and I remember I just used to program beats for fun. I was 13. So I was playing video games and making beats. That’s what I did with my free time.

BeatTips: So at 13, you were already into hip hop?
!llmind: I was already into it; well, I was into music. I wouldn’t necessarily say hip hop. I was just into music, you know. My father was a musician, so he introduced me to music when I was real young. He played guitar, he had keyboards and drums and stuff. That particular keyboard was one of the instruments that I started on. So fast forward to around high school, freshman/sophomore in high school, that’s when I really, really, really started getting into hip hop. I remember early days, I was into…that’s when Tribe Called Quest was out. That was early Roots. Rakim. Pete Rock and CL Smooth. Black Sheep. Arrested Development. Those was my golden years. So getting into hip hop in that way, the first piece of equipment that I actually bought with my own money was a sampler by Akai, an Akai S20, which I still have. The Akai S20 is kind of like a toned-down MPC. It came out before the MP; it’s got 12 pads on it, real dingy plastic pads. But the sampling on it was really great, ‘cuz back then I was into sampling with lower bit rates and things like that. I started to do my research on what Pete Rock and DJ Premier were using and things like that, and back then I couldn’t afford an MPC. So I got an Akai S20…I got it on eBay for like $200. So I got the S20, and I had a PC at that time, and I downloaded Cubase.

So my first official setup was Cubase, on a PC, MIDI output triggering the S20. And I figured it all out myself. I was like, ‘How can I trigger this stuff?’ So I went online and I did a little bit of research on how to trigger this thing and how MIDI worked. So I was doing research on different software music programs out there. Back then it was Cakewalk, Cubase, infant stages. So I found out about Cubase, got my hands on it, downloaded it, installed it, and somehow I figured out how to trigger this S20 with Cubase. That was actually like my first real setup. And then from there, I got a Korg Triton.

BeatTips: What made you switch?
!llmind: Um, I think I just wanted more sounds. Back then I was really into the J-Dilla/Pete Rock sound. Like those guys were the ones who really inspired me, they still inspire me. I wanted to expand my setup. Like I always knew, ‘Oh, I need sounds.’ I used to go diggin’ all the time, and I would sample drums and chop drums, and that was one big, huge part of my beatmaking. And I was just always fascinated with sounds, too, like, ‘I want sounds; I want keyboard sounds.’ So I went out and got a Triton.

BeatTips: Do you look at the Triton as a setup switch or as an add-on?
!llmind: Um…I kind of actually looked at it as an upgrade, because on the Triton you can sample and you have sounds, and it’s all in one keyboard. It’s got the floppy disk drive. So it was an upgrade for me.

BeatTips: So was it a long time before you completely stopped using the S20, or did you use it for a while together?
!llmind: I used it for a while. I kept the S20 because I loved the way the drums sound on it. So I would always run my drums into the S20 first, and then run them into the Triton.

BeatTips: When you ran them into the Triton, you sampled them in?
!llmind: I sampled them in. I would have my turntable output routed into my S20 first. And then I would sample a bunch of drums. And then I would bit crunch in the S20; I think it was like 16bit crunched down to like 12bit. And then from there, I would take those drums and sample them into the Triton. Because in the Triton, supposedly that Triton had a digital sampler, so it would pretty much just duplicate the sound, but I still wanted that grit, so I would run everything, especially my drums, through the S20 first.

BeatTips: Then how did you get it into the Triton exactly? Would you just press playback on the S20?
!llmind: Yes, press playback, then sample it into the Triton. So I used the Triton for a while, then in 2001 (I believe, maybe 2000) I copped the ASR-10.

BeatTips: And what lead you to that [the ASR-10]
!llmind: I went to Guitar Center to buy a Motif Rack, which I bought that day, and I was messing around, I was looking in the keyboard section and I saw an ASR-10 there for $500. So I scrounded up my last dollars, whatever dollars I had, to buy it. And I bought it, because I had just heard so many storeis about the ASR-10. A few of these others producers that I knew told me how great it was. Then I found out that the RZA used it, so I was really interested in it. So I looked at it like an advanced S20. Like this is a sampler that samples at a lower bit rate, which I liked. It had a really analog, warm sound to it. And it was a keyboard. AND you could sample a lot longer than the S20.

BeatTips: So what sort of effect did it the ASR-10 have on you?
!llmind: I think the ASR-10 brought me back to the gritty approach of making tracks. When I had the Triton, it was a lot of keyboard stuff. Not as much sampling, more keyboard. But the few years that I used the Triton really taught me how to…it kind of polished me a little bit more, as far as making beats from scratch. So I got the ASR-10; the Triton got dusty—eventually I got rid of it. So now I got this ASR-10 and I’m back to doing the sampling, sample chopping, sampling piano sounds into it and playing them out on the ASR-10.

BeatTips: Because the ASR-10 has no sounds in it. A lot of people didn’t realize that it didn’t come with sounds, and they got a rude awakening when they got it.
!llmind: No, it didn’t. To me it was the best of both worlds, because I could sample my own sounds and then play them out on the keyboard, which I wasn’t able to do on the S20. So I was on the ASR-10 for a while. Eventually, I upgraded to a Mac; it was like a G4. And I think around ’03 was when I got Pro Tools. And I started to learn how to use Pro Tools. So the ASR-10 and Pro Tools was like my setup. So I would I sample and create beats on the ASR-10, then I would dump [track/record] them in Pro Tools. So I’ve been sequencing and arranging and dumping my beats into Pro Tools since around ’03. So late last year I decided that I needed to upgrade again. And it wasn’t one of those things where like, ‘Aw, man, I feel like I have to.’ It sort of kind of happen. I got a G5 last year, and I was using Reason and Pro Tools, and still the ASR-10.

BeatTips: What were you using Reason for?
!llmind: Sounds! What I would do is play stuff out on a MIDI keyboard, on Reason, but then audio out from the computer into the ASR-10. So I would still sample into the ASR-10, but the sounds were coming from Reason. So that was like kind of…my setup was pretty much hardware and software together.

BeatTips: Right, the hybrid.
!llmind: Yes. I was sequencing in hardware but my sounds were in software, which is kind of a weird setup, but that was my setup for a long time. So then kind of keeping up with technology, I just decided to go and look for more sounds and see what else is out there. So I knew that I needed to get a better computer. I knew that I needed to try and figure out a way to be more…I wanted my setup to be more effective, as far as cutting time to what I’m doing, you know. When you work with the ASR-10, you have to create the beat on it, and then you have to dump each track one by one and mix. I wanted to cut my time.

BeatTips: Stay right there for a moment. Contrast the workflow of the ASR-10 to the Triton to where you are now.
!llmind: OK. With the ASR-10/Pro Tools setup, everything was done on the ASR-10. I would start with sampling drums, you know, from a record or a CD; I had CDs where I compiled a lot of drums. So I would make the beat in the ASR-10—sample, chop, do the normal stuff. If I needed keys, I would load up Reason on Pro Tools and I would play certain riffs and then sample those riffs into the ASR-10 and treat those like samples. So in a way, I was playing keyboards, you know, keyboard sounds and things, but I would treat them like samples still. Let’s say I had a piano riff of like 2 bars. I would play it and then I’d sample it into a single key.

BeatTips: And what were you using to play Reason?
!llmind: A basic MIDI keyboard. So I would sample my own playing into the ASR-10. After the beat would be done—meanwhile, I’m doing all of this in mono, everything was in mono because it doubled my sample time in the ASR-10. So after the beat’s completely done, I would track each instrument, individually, in 8 bars, into Pro Tools. So that alone took me an additional half hour. If I had 18 different instruments, I would have to record each instrument, one by one, into Pro Tools. Then after all the tracks are in Pro Tools, I’d have to go into Pro Tools and line it all up. So I would line them all up into the grid. Then another kicker is, a lot of people don’t know that the ASR-10 grid is slightly different than the Pro Tools grid. So if my BPM on the ASR-10 is set for 90, and then I set Pro Tools for 90, they won’t match. It’s slightly off. So I couldn’t work in the grid in Pro Tools. Which is a huge inconvenience. So I what I would do is record a click track into Pro Tools for, let’s say, 8 bars. And then I would use the clicks as my visual points to where I would have to line everything up. So it’s kind of like I make the beat, then I deconstruct it, and then put it back together again. And that took me an extra 30 to 45 minutes.

And I’ve always been one of those producers where I always love to mix my tracks, too. Some producers 2-track and call it a day. But I think mixing is another art form. Mixing is a part of the creative process. So I would spend even more time, after dumping into Pro Tools, I would spend even more time mixing the beat. And after it was all said and done, it was [just] one beat made. And I remember I used to just keep banging them out all day, early morning to late night. So that was my workflow. It sounds…when you think about it, it sounds like it’s so much, but I’ve been doing it that way for so long, and I’ve been so comfortable doing it that way. That was my workflow. And so with just that, and then also the fact that I wanted to kind of just broaden my sound and explore. I wanted to continue my full heights of expression. I knew that were some limitations having that kind of setup. So working with certain artists, that really kind of opened my mind. Working with artists like Jared Evan—Jared Evan is an artists signed to Interscope, who’s a rapper, a singer, a producer, and a musician. Approaching things as a true musician really led me to want to expand my setup, get a more effective setup. And also my band, Smokey Robotic, meeting those guys really opened up my mind, too.

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

June 22, 2011

BeatTips "Setups in Action": Akai MPC 1000, Fantom Xa, and Propellerhead Recycle

Profile of Pat King's Hybrid (Hardware/Software) Setup


Complete Setup:
Akai MPC 1000, Roland Fantom Xa, M-Audio BX5 monitors, (2) Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables, Vestax PCV-002 mixer, Vestax Handytrax turntable (Portable), Sony MDR-7506 headphones, iMac G5 PPC (Tiger OS 10.4.11, 1.8 GHz, 2 gigs of RAM), Digidesign Mbox with Pro Tools, Waves plug-ins, Propellerhead Recycle 2.1, Record collection.

Signal flow:
MPC stereo out to TRS inputs on the M-Audio BX5 monitors. I keep Auralex MoPads on stands beneath the speakers in order to decouple them from the surface it rests. I use the Roland Fantom Xa mainly for sounds like bass, or melodic strings to layer on tracks in the MPC. Whenever I want to use the Fantom Xa, I route the Fantom’s output A mix into the MPC record in. This gives me standard audio quality (44.1KHz, 16-bit). When I’m not sampling from the Fantom, the way that I audition (listen to) sounds through is that I listen through my headphones. As for my Vestax DJ mixer, when I want to get a vinyl record sample into my computer for editing, I go from the turntable to DJ mixer. I route from the L/R record output of my Vestex DJ mixer to the Mbox source 1&2 line inputs, then I record sample on to a stereo audio track.

Though my production setup consists of several pieces of hardware and software, the main unit and sequencer that I use is the Akai MPC 1000. I transfer drum sounds and samples, (that I usually edit on the computer), to the MPC through a USB connection. I store everything on a 1GB compact flash card.

Method & Process:
When I get new vinyl records I start off by sitting down and listening to them on one of the turntables through the Vestax DJ mixer, with everything set to zero, no EQ frequencies accentuated initially. The minute I hear something that catches my attention I make a note of it on paper. I write down things like the instruments I want to use and what part of the song its located at, then continue listening for more parts to assemble a new arrangement. If the sample is complex I record it into Pro Tools and (bounce it to disk). What I mean by “complex” is that to me, it’s a sample that has a lot of nuances. In order to control those nuances I use Recycle to chop them up and manipulate those sample more precisely, then I export the results a WAV. files to the MPC.

For me, the advantages to editing on the computer rather than on the MPC is that it's less time consuming, and that increases productivity. But I can see how it could be the reverse for someone who does edit on the MPC, especially older MPC models, like the MPC 60 II or even the 2000. Another reason that I like to edit on the computer rather than the MPC is because I like seeing the waveform of the sample on a 17-inch screen, versus the small screen on the MPC. To me, its easier to work with and break down. If its a simple sample like a one bar drum break, I just record into the MPC; maybe use the slice feature and some filters. I should point out that the MPC is not limited in editing capabilities, it’s just not as efficient as a computer is in my production process.

Sequencing, Tracking and Rough Mixing: The first track of the sequence I start off with is usually the sample, then the drums, then the bass, I just continue to build sequences and tracks until the beat is complete. When I finish all of my sequences, its time to get them into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). First off, I disconnect the MPC stereo out from the speakers inputs. I use the Mbox source 1&2 line inputs and connect to the MPC stereo out. I connect the line outputs on the Mbox to the speakers. I then record into Pro Tools, two tracks at a time. I can then control the dynamics of each track. Depending on what I want to achieve, I use different Waves plug-in's. Before I finish the session I record a 2-channel stereo track of the entire beat to Pro Tools from the MPC. When I'm mixing I use headphones to get closer to an accurate mix. Stereo imaging is essential, it’s is how the audio image is placed and meshed during mixing for the listener's ears. After I sequence my drums I leave the kick and snare centered, add some reverb to the snare for depth and pan the hi hat to the left to give off that feel that a real drummer is in that position on the stage. The contrast between mono and stereo instruments is important to understand. Panning and balancing the levels allows room for all of the instruments to breath and have their own space in the mix.

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

June 13, 2011

Chris Athens Breaks Down Mastering, Part 2

Sterling Sound's Senior Mastering Engineer Drops Jewels; Mastering Still a Worthy Step in the Recording Process

Interview by AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

BeatTips: What are the fundamental dynamics of mastering?
Chris Athens: You mean in terms of what we exactly do?

BeatTips: Exactly, like if you go into a mastering lab anywhere across the country, what are the main things that you’re going to get?
Chris Athens: When you go to a mastering session, the first process will be the mastering engineer will generally ask the client what it is they’re looking to accomplish. Sometimes the clients don’t have a clear idea of what it is they want to accomplish, they just want their record to sound good. But sometimes they will say something specific, say like, they might describe where they did it and how they did it and what they were hoping it would end up sounding like. Then you listen to the tracks that they actually have in your environment, and that actually begins the process of evaluating the mix. Typically, the way I work, some guys like to work a bit more linear, I like to load up the whole record, listen to it, see where the record’s at as a whole, kind of organically. Then you start to make slight adjustments, some songs may need more bottom end, some songs may need more top end.

Some songs need everything, then you work from there. Once you sort of hammered the whole record into place, so it sounds like sort of a cohesive whole, then the process of actually putting the songs in order begins… spacing them out the way you want them. Most urban records you listen to tend to be almost DJ style, people want stuff to kinda come in on the one, or on a beat that makes sense psychologically when they’re listening to it. Putting songs in order is a skill all in its own essentially. Not really putting them in order, cuz usually the clients know what they want, but actually spacing them out, fading them properly, getting them to come in so they feel right. And because it’s a beat-oriented music, and because so many producers are DJs, then tend to be really sensitive to how the record flows, timing wise.

BeatTips: A lot of people’s misconception of mastering is that it’s basically volume boosting.
Chris Athens: Well, the truth is at this point, anybody can make a record loud! It’s gotten so easy that most people actually make records too loud. And I’m talking about producers, mix engineers and the mastering engineers. I frequently get records sent to me for mastering that are already louder than I would’ve made them when I was done mastering them; and sufficiently distorted and all these other things… Listening to records to evaluate their distortion and their dynamics is really a skill. Not everybody has it. You would be amazed at people that are actually really good at producing and being an artist, but are really terrible at listening to records, in terms of what they think sounds good. Lot of times people will evaluate stuff in their car when their car system isn’t really that good; or on speakers in rooms that aren’t set up that well and they think it sounds good and it actually doesn’t.

BeatTips: So in situation where somebody brings to you a project that is mixed particularly well, what do you bring to the stage, what do you add to that?
Chris Athens: If it’s an album, what I’m bringing to the table is evaluation. I’m sort of the last double-check that everything is cool…

BeatTips: Like quality control?
Chris Athens: Almost like a quality control, exactly. And typically what I do to a record that sounds really good is similar to what I do to a record that doesn’t sound good. I just do less of it. I use my level of taste and experience to not step all over it, to let it be what it is and to find whatever weak links it may be in the record and fix them.

Read Chris Athens Breaks Down Mastering, Part 1

For more information on Chris Athens or Sterling Sound, visit Sterling Sound

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

June 12, 2011

TBC Thread of the Day: "Proper Signal Chain for mixing samples?"

Finding the Right Signal Chain for Your Style and Sound, When Your Mixing Samples in Your DAW


DK: "Is there a proper signal chain for mixing samples (pre-recorded material off records) such as drums, basslines, and non-drum sound instruments?"

Sa'id: dk, First thing. When you say "*signal chain* for mixing samples," do you mean to ask about what signal chain to use to when tracking (recording) into your DAW? The reason I ask is because, if you're at the *mixing* point, you're already past the signal chain point...

Second thing:
I don't think that the use of the word "proper" is the best way to phrase your question or kick off this thread. Perhaps the word "effective" is better. "Proper" sounds dogmatic, as in there's only one way. In regards to signal chains, there are multiple effective ways that different people like to choose, for various reasons

If you are asking about what signal chain to use before the mixing point, well, then consider the fact that an *effective* signal chain completely depends on the beatmaker (and mixer) and the style and sound he or she (or they) is/are going for. Different sounds produce different signals, but the degree of difference changes with the sample. For example, a stand-alone bass sample will generate one kind of signal; while a sample that contains basslines, drums, and non-drum instruments will generate yet another kind of signal.

DK: First of all, thanks the reply.

Secondly, I agree wholeheartedly that "effective" would have been a much better word for what I'm asking. The best thing about TBC is that we have no "know it all's" here that claim to know everything and therefore bring down the integrity of the boards. Amen to that.

Back to my original question though, I meant once the samples are tracked into the DAW, is there a certain signal chain on the inserts that would help me mix my samples more efficiently? For example, say that I have a high-pass filter applied on my primary sample track (the sample contains a guitar, strings, piano chords, organ etc) and I planned on "bumping" the sample like you described in the BeatTips Manual. Say, I wanted also wanted to compress the sample and add some reverb as well. Would the proper plugin sequence on the inserts be 1) high pass filter 2) compression 3) reverb, or should I compress the sound last? If so, is there a reason behind doing so?

I remember you posting here a few months ago that it helps to know your sounds, and to have that sound available if possible before entering the mix phase (eg. using a kick drum with lots of low end in your beat before tracking it into your DAW).

Before sampling, I also use your trick of playing around with the DJ mixer so I can get the sound that I'm looking for before sampling. What I mean in this case is that for this particular I noticed that the bassline didn't really stand out, but I wanted the strings and the organ sounds (the mids and the highs) to stand out so they would be easier to chop. Doing so, I turned down the low end on the dj mixer so the bass was less audible when I sampled it. This did help me get the sound I was looking for, but if I was looking to tweak it even further in my DAW, which plugin effects chain would be the most beneficial for what I'm trying to do with the sample?


Sa'id: Dk,

OK, now I get what you're asking...
Generally speaking, compression would be last on the chain you described. As for the high pass filter and the reverb, that depends on what you're trying to achieve. I usually work my levels (EQ/Filters) before I apply reverb. But then there are other times (for instance, sometimes when I re-sample my own snare sounds) where I apply the reverb (for the elongated sound and roominess) before the EQ. In cases like these, I'm interested in the "shape" of the sound before the "color" (feel, EQ) of the sound. So once I get the shape of the sound (the duration, spacing), I can then go about modifying how it knocks (or doesn't), shuffles, or tucks through the mix, etc.

It's often a good thing to compress last because compression actually "squashes"/restrains the fullness of a sound. In fact, with my style and sound I tend to avoid compression as much as possible. This is why I've spent a great deal of time knowing my sound before I track into my DAW... The idea is to have the sound as close to complete as possible before I mix. This way, when I mix it or turn it over to someone else to mix, there's no guess work—The sound scope is already there, like a map... Check out my interview with mix engineer Steve Sola in The BeatTips Manual where he discusses receiving a near-finished mix, before he even touched it.

As for the DJ mixer amplification/EQ, please note: I pretty much have the left and right EQ bands (channels) set to a default! In other words, I don't adjust my mixer for every record (or other source material) that I sample. Instead, my DJ mixer's EQs stay the same... But remember, I route my DJ mixer through my analog Mackie board. And it is there where I may modify the Hi's and Lo's of the source material, before I sample it. Keeping my DJ mixer with my custom default EQ setting helps keep my own style and sound.

Finally, remember, once you get any bass part into your DAW, you can just duplicate the tracked bass part (as needed) and boost the low end (I like to use the multiple band EQ) on the duplicates or turn their volume up.

Participate in this TBC thread here: "Proper Signal Chain for mixing samples?"

The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
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