Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Digital Labs Bristol 2016

Digital Labz Seminar - 1st October 2016 - Bristol

Dot Project / Chris Raiden -
DnB legend, techno producer and mastering engineer.

Live sets are becoming more and more frequent and moving away from DJ sets, How can I make a DnB live set?
He used samples of landmines for kick drums and knives being sharpened for high hats. This was recorded and found sound, the sounds he was able to find were recorded with an SM47 and recorder with an XLR input. - Foley gave the piece of music a rich and organic sound that had very interesting harmonics, they are very different from what could be found in a synthesiser and are naturally complex.
Parallel compression was an important factor in Chris’ opinion, he thought that it allowed the character of the original to be retained whilst using the right type of compressor to create extra attack or whatever extra characteristic is needed (this should be on a bus).
One interesting technique that was used, is setting the pre-delay time to be quite slow but in a way that starts to groove with the music. This technique was employed on drums to give an extra sense of groove.
The reverb units that he recommended were the eventide blackhole and eventide ultra, respectively these can be used for atmosphere and closer room reverbs.
Another interesting topic that Chris discussed in his talk was employing convolution reverb in an interesting way. Instead of using a classic impulse response in your convolution reverb you should use some rhythmic material such as a drum loop or other interesting found sound. This is best applied to something that sounds quite static initially, yet with a rhythmic convolution added you can get some very interesting sounds.
Another recommendation that Chris used was to try a distortion plug in called Dent. This enables you to distort sound heavily and then modulate the parameters with various lfos and envelopes. This was used in a way that almost turned regular samples into a synthesiser (if enough care and automation is applied).
His approach to writing music was to create an initial idea very quickly, using samples he had already collected and applied some light processing - he clarified that in general it is not good practice for him to truncate each one of his samples, instead we should be looking for the small artifacts and obscure samples that happen toward the tail of the envelope of sound. So once he has got something that feels like it is an established idea, his process of writing and composing is to ‘capture the chaos’ that was produced in the live writing session.
One way that Chirs created his basslines was with FM synthesis. The core of his idea was to modulate the carrier signal with a white noise modulator. This plus other sine waveforms as modulators created distortions that has a characteristic of white noise to them in the way that the top end distorted but with the tone of the original carrier wave. This was also heavily saturated to distort and to some extent, even out the dynamics of the bassline.
One source that Chris used for sounds was an EMR coil microphone or electro-coil microphone. This was originally designed as a tool for ‘tapping’ phone calls and recording them. Yet if you use a considerable amount of gain, then put the microphone near a piece of electrical equipment it will pick up the electromagnetic radiation which creates a varied and unique sound. This sound is once again full of complex harmonics and is very difficult to reproduce, give a greater sense of unique sound to each composer's sound palette.
A small tip that he shared was using a DBX160 for kick drum attacks in parallel was a great way to get a kick drum a nice extra punchy sound.
In his live set-up he uses:
Vestex VCM600
Faderfox UC44
Launch Control
Push 2
The set up above was great through trial and error when performing live and creating a balanced between things that are created on the night and elements that have been created beforehand. Another thing to note is that this system has built in fail safes that will allow him to cut sound and fade out smoothly if everything gets too overwhelming in a live show.
He recommended a piece of software called the dynamic spectrum mapper V2 which is from plugin alliance. This works in a similar way to a multiband compressor but taking the curve of a professionaly mastered track and then the DSMv2 ensures that the current track doesn’t go above the set frequency curve. This is an expensive plugin that he considered to be suitable for his mastering work.
He also mentioned SK note v3 an alternative to many of the analogue emulations that have been appearing on the plug-in market at the moment.
Two tracks that Chris referenced as an influence on his music were eskmo - cloud light and amon tobin - ISAM.

Joe Ford - Signed to Shogun Records

In his arrangements one tip that he has found very useful is to play the note just above or below the tonic of the key to create tension, then on the ‘drop’ or main section of a dance music track he will return to the tonic key to give a feeling of resolution.
Joe felt that an important part of DnB should be something that comes from a human source such as vocal tones, shouts and even heavily processed speech. This is to give a sense of realism and an organic flavour to sounds which could otherwise be criticised of being sterile.
Joe ford echoed the sentiment of Chris in the earlier session saying that he wrote a good set of sounds in one session and then wrote his music in a different session, this allowed him to use different ‘hats’ as an electronic music producer sound creator/designer first, then writing and arranging and finally mixing the sounds at the end. Keeping the sessions separate enabled him to be more productive in his writing.
One tip for mixing that he thought was very effective was to create a separate layer for your sub bass, then, any time the kick drum hits he would create a small fade on the sub bass so that there was absolute clarity in the low end of his productions.
When creating his drums he would synthesise them using a software synthesiser called massive. One interesting tip was to create the sound 4 semitones lower that you wanted then use a pitch envelope on the resultant sound in a sampler such as NI Battery to create the final sound with a punchy and clean attack. The drum itself was created by using pitch envelopes that very quickly pitched down a sine wave 64 semitones this gave the initial attack, then this process was repeated and altered to create the body of the sound. The two files were then aligned in terms of phase as best as possible and finally minute audio fades were used to preserve each elements clarity. This was then layered with a kick drum sample that was high passed to retain the kick drum character and some of the room ambience from the original drum. These elements were then gently saturated and limited to create the final drum sound.
In general he would use massive to create his snare drum body and attack, then he would use FM8 to create the attack and body of the kick drum.
He used serum to create his bassline, this process involved setting many oscillators, parameters and effects to all be modulated in different amounts by one MIDI controller knob. This sound was then re-sampled into a sampler called kontakt to choose the best ‘phrases’ of bass that could be eventually used as a bassline. Then where possible the sound was stripped of its original sub bass and re-layered with a sub bass that had been previously created. This contained the fundamental an octave harmonic and finally an octave plus 7 semitones. These were respectively mono, slightly widened sound and then chorused and stereo widened to create a solid low end. To finalise this sound Joe used a limited and multi-band exciter to get the most from his bass sound, the compression coming from the limiting and subtle distortion made the separate elements of the bass (modulated serum and layered sub bass) to sound as one element in the track.
One plug-in he strongly recommended was Trash 2 by iZotope.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Digital Labz 2015 - Dot Product, Got Some, LSB and Delta Heavy

Saturday 10th October 2015

This post is a summary of the notes that I took at the Digital Labz seminar and some tricks and tips that were discussed on the day.

Dot Product - Sound Design

The first talk focused on sound design and thinking outside of the box. It was good to think back to last years seminar; guitar pickup coils recorded the electromagnetic spectrum, contact mics allowed you to get inside a sound and home made slinky spring reverbs gave a new flavour to reverb.
This year was different, there was some self promotion of the new Dot Product music which is coming out soon, one of the stand out tracks was IRF830. The kick drum in the aforementioned track was made from a balloon which is very interesting and is worth checking out when released. Now onto a free program called SPEAR. 

This program allows you to import a sound and creates a representation of each sine wave at the different frequencies and durations that make up your sample, almost like additive synthesis. You are then able to edit and change individual partials of the sound. With pitch, time and lasso tools some very interesting soundscape and atmospheric FX can be created. 

The last section of the talk was dedicated to using a Xbox Kinect to control different parameters in Ableton live using a Max for Live patch. This was thoroughly entertaining to watch, for me this felt a little superfluous. However, the speaker did make a good point about the embodiment of an instrument can be to give an organic feel to music, but I feel this can be achieved with the human interaction on a MIDI controller. 
What I did take from this talk, was a reminder of a technique that I have found to be very creative in the past. This is to take a synth or sample with a few choice plug-ins, an example could be a kontakt sampler with delay, reverb and flanger. Then map as many parameters as you can to two or three knobs on a MIDI controller. Hit record and spend 10 minutes having fun, creating unique and unpredictable sounds. Then go back into this recording and pan for gold, trying to find small parts of audio that could be re-sampled again and used in a track. I will leave the Xbox Kinect modulation to the extroverts of music production or people interested in technology with performance.

Got Some - House Production

The main ideas in this talk were; ideas about creating music, insight into a few choice plug-ins and a discussion about creating a rough master for playing in a DJ set.

Some of the tips below I agreed with fully, others I thought were incorrect. I will leave it for you to make up your own mind.
  • Sit on finished songs for about a year, making sure that they are really good before they go out.
  • If a track is made for the club, try and find a way to make sure you road test it there.
  • Check songs in front of others, this gives a clarity to your judgement and a new perspective.
  • When creating and arranging songs use colours for different parts to keep things organised, good 'housekeeping' is essential.

Plug-ins to check out

Xfer Dimension Expander

In the Native Instruments plug-in Massive there is a wonderful little tool called the dimension expander. I have always wanted to be able to put on on other sounds as a stand alone plug-in... 
Well this little freebie claims to do exactly that. You can download a free copy here:

Sugar Bytes Wow 2

This is a filter, modulation and distortion that was highly rated on the day, it is €99 so I have yet to try it out but it can be downloaded from here:

Waves-factory - Track Spacer

Track Spacer is a cross between side-chain compression and multi-band dynamic EQ. This is for achieving extra clarity between conflicting elements in the mix, for example kick and bass or synth pads conflicting with vocals. The plug-in will analyse the incoming signal and only duck the necessary frequencies, giving space for elements to breathe without effecting the whole frequency spectrum.

Tips for rough master

Finally it was discussed that sometimes you might need to create a rough master to play out in DJ sets. This allows for road testing songs months before the label will send it off to a professional mastering engineer. The assumption is that you would have taken the time to make your mix as good as possible, before you start thinking about the master channel.

When creating a rough master he will use various plugins to create a competitive loudness and make sure that the main frequencies in the track are not lacking. These include Steven Slate plug-ins and a similar compressor to 'The Glue'.
The next plug-in which I have never seen before is Brainworx Refinement. This is another dynamic EQ that targets the frequencies our ears are most sensitive too. The region around 3kHz and related harmonics are targeted and ducked if they become too aggressive in the track.
The final elements on the master chain were two copies of Ozone. Each instance of the plugin is working as a limiter, but he has found that Ozone sounds best for gentle limiting but can be overly aggressive and brittle when pushed hard. To fix this he uses two limiters in series, each doing gentle limiting. This creates the desired loudness whilst minimising negative artefacts. Overall he was aiming for a certain point on the Logic level meter which was -0.2 peak and -6/-7 RMS. This ensured the track was loud but also wasn't crushing the life and dynamics out of the song.

LSB - Musical Production

LSB was very interesting in terms of inspiration and productivity. His inspiration manifests itself in the form of Autumn and Winter nights and is a proud advocate of listening to lots of music from all different genres. Just a few bands and artists he mentioned were Foals, Ashanti, Wild Beats and Marvin Gaye. Having a wide range of musical influences drives his music production, in broad terms it means the ideas are less likely to be confined to the traditional constraints of dance music and instead are inspired by outside forces feeding in. If you are also using this music to sample it means that your sound pallet is increased and with time only limited by imagination.  This was communicated in a very humble way that encouraged writing what you want to hear, rather than what you think people want from you.

In his productions Omnisphere was very useful, the large sound banks gave lots of inspiration to allow clear communication of ideas. This came with a word of caution that he wouldn't want people to rush out and buy Omnisphere, instead to stick with the equipment they have and learn it, inside and out, front to back.

One tip for productivity he gave was about a non-essential sounds in the mix. Imagine you had a small piano part and you are unsure of where it should be in terms of volume level and stereo placement. Instead of stressing about this for hours and re-checking and double checking, automate the part around so that at one point or another, it is going to be perfect. An example would be a small sound effect, if you couldn't decide between it being on the left or right, instead of wasting time automate it to move over time. The same goes for choosing between -16dB or -17dB for a riser, just have it automate between the two values to give more life and interest to the track. Some points the balance will be perfect the other automation points will be giving the track more interest and dynamics anyway.

A final plug-in that he highly recommended was TAL reverb. 

LSB liked this because it was quite a dull reverb that could be manipulated easily. The beauty of the plug-in is that it is a little bit cruddy and low quality. So many reverbs are beautiful, shiny and polished; it was nice to have one that was dark and flawed because that suits the drum n bass sound. Free download here:

Delta Heavy - Production Techniques

It was just one half of Delta Heavy on the day and they started by giving us a preview of the newest release on Ram Records a dancehall inspired track with two distinct halves called Oscillator. This was a powerful track and one to look out for in the future.

The main focus of the talk was drum production. The top priority was to spend time choosing the best samples possible. He gave some basic information about wanting kick drums to have a strong 80-100Hz weight and snare drums to have a strong 180-220Hz knock.

When layering drums the advice he gave was that they would only ever have one transient hitting at a time. The main layer would have the main transient. The other samples would add definition, presence and character to the drum. This means using small fades on the other samples to make sure the main drum attack is clear and uncluttered by other sounds. 
When using EQ on layers it is important to keep the life and character of the sample you have added. For instance some people will EQ everything below 1kHz out completely and sometimes this can leave drums sounding unappealing and synthetic in a negative way. The solution that was discussed way instead of using 36/48dB per octave HPF on the EQ was to use the high and low shelf option. In the example given this removed 24dB of low end up to about 500Hz on one layer. This gave the whole kick more character, grit and sustain, but because of the shelf EQ process rather than harsh cuts it created a more organic blend between the two hits.
This discussion was quickly countered by the fact that there is a place for HPF, but to be used with caution. An example of this would be the hi-hat bus, this had a gentle HPF 12dB/octave just making sure nothing below 400Hz (ish) got into the hi-hat bus, yet the same principle was applied making sure that the EQ did not kill the life of the sample or make it sound artificial.

The source of their drum samples is mainly from sample packs used in battery to pitch and process then into audio for more processing and layering (I still believe that when you get signed to Ram Records they welcome you with a super snare sample pack).

On the drum bus they use a few different things to stop clipping and add weight. Working in Logic 9 they found that the Bit Crusher on a clean setting gave a nice clean digital clip on the snare bus just to stop it going over 0dBfs. The Overdrive plug-in was used to give an extra weight to the drum mix.

An interesting tip was something they do in every session, they always have 3 ghost channels with no output. One is a kick drum on every beat, the second was a kick on the 1 and the 3, the third was a basic 2step DnB beat. You never hear these tracks but they serve the purpose of being the side chain input for many different elements in the track. This is a great tip that will definitely save me time in the future and can add nice dynamic movement to static elements in the track.

The final tip he gave was a warm support for Valhalla Vintage Verb.

This gave just a nice ambience to a lot of the sounds in the track and was especially used to give electronic hats and white noise a sense of realistic space. The mix amount used was a tiny 4% and the EQ for the return reverb signal was set at a very high 15kHz yet this made all of the difference to give then a little extra sustain and sizzle to the hat bus.

Digital Labz - You can get videos of all the seminars very soon here: