Wednesday, February 25, 2009
The incredible advancements in modern techonology have allowed every musician the ability to express and create their own musical compositions without the use of a large amount of money or spending time in an expensive studio. With the explosion of music creation possibilities it makes it hard to decide what programs to use and what equipment to purchase.
The equipment and programs recommended for any initiate of digital music would be a decent USB Keyboard controller that has velocity sensitivity and maybe a few knobs and sliders. You also need an updated Loop Based Software like Ableton's Live or Propellerhead's Reason. There are lot's of other programs and even free Loop Based Software (LBS) to be found on the internet, but these two are the most commonly used by many music industry professionals.
If you already own a keyboard or synthesizer you can integrate it with your software and should definitely use Ableton Live. It's built around creating tons of MIDI sequences that you can play live to create entirely improvised song ideas. If you are only using the USB Controller Keyboard and are interested in learning about synthesizers and how they work then you should go with Propellerhead's Reason. It is the best way to learn how to use real hardware because it's interface is modeled on real life equipment. If you've choose Reason you will also need to be familiar with another program, Logic. Logic is used for both multitrack recording and MIDI sequencing; it also requires a little bit more familiarity than Ableton Live. You won't be able to record audio tracks into Reason but you will be able to either sync the two programs using Rewire or just mixdown your song from Reason and then import it in to Logic.
This is a link to another more in depth screen shot from Ableton Live
The first step of every songwriter's process is to come up with a memorable hook. The hook is so important because it sets the tone for the whole song and invites your listener to participate in the song by singing or humming along; making the music more personal and acceptable for the listener. You want the hook to repeat as many times as possible without losing it's effect or becoming boring. You want the listener to remember the words and melody of your hook. What you are actually doing is allowing a collaboration between artist and listener by letting them add their own voice to your mix.
When I create a song I like to choose my focus instrument or focus tone that will have the biggest impact on the melody. If you are writing a song on guitar and then recording it as a piano track you are going to lose the timbre, tone, and range of the instrument that you composed it on. If you write something for the guitar then you should make the guitar the focus in the song. If you are going to use vocals in the song then make voices your primary concern and then use the guitar as a complimentary or memorable tone. Even though your song has vocals the guitar tone may still be the focal or centerpiece of the music.
Now that you've got a melody ready you should add in an overly simple drum track for your click, which is the consistent rhythm that you will follow to record the track in correct time. Now we're ready to arm a track and record a sequence. Ableton Live has a built in learning function that will teach you every step of the process, very useful for beginners and pros.
First, I like to record out a few variations of my main chord structure then see if they can fit together in a fresh and unique way. Once you get the core of your song sequenced i.e. the chorus, verses, bridge, intro, and outro it's time to decide what you're keeping and what you're changing. This is easy with Live because you just create new clips for each idea. With Reason you are going to have one track with different parts in it. Edit everything as much as you want and then listen to the composition as a whole and ask yourself if it feels fluid. Do the transitions seem right? Are there enough bars in each part? Is there a climax and does the climax come to early or too late?
Now you have a whole song arranged with a simplified drum track and a basic chord structure for harmonic content. The best part about digital music is that you can approach it's creation from any angle you want and in any order you want. I usually choose to go ahead and sequence out some drums next. If we're working on an upbeat song then we are going to really make these drum tracks move. We can do that by either adding a lot of energy in the drum mix (compression pumping), adding very busy hi-hats, or adding extra percussion. You don't want to make your rhythm so busy that it turns into disorder when the other tracks are played. You do want to create a rhythmic motif and find the groove, where the drums naturally blend and fall in to the places between the music.
After you've created some beats that you think sound really dope you should add in a couple of highly contrasting beats in halftime or double time as well as a few fills for transitioning your song elements. Drums are always important in digital music and even the absence of drums in some parts of your song can give you the type of dramatic drops and breaks that will take your song to the next level.
Now let's drop the bass. Does your song have to much melodic movement, or maybe not enough? You can add a fluid and moving bass line to give chords that are held out the illusion of motion or you can switch and have a solid long held bass line over a highly energized melody or solo to slow the pace. Both techniques will help stabilize your song and give a foundation that is movable and yet as strong as concrete.
The bass section is also where you can create some differing chordal ideas by landing on different degrees of the chord. This can create inversions of your chords and sometimes new and exciting chord structures that you may not have naturally played in conception. Playing the relative minor on the bass over a chord that has been already established as a major can change the whole feel of a song, strengthening the climax by reversing the expectations of the listener; like a set up for a musical punch line or a twist in a novel.
Depending on what your main instrument is, guitar and vocals can be considered in the digital world as either some of the easiest aspects of recording or the most dreaded. Most guitarists are better at voicing chords and soloing then singing which has led to a resurgence of vocoding and auto-tuning. Both vocoding and auto-tuning vocals remove the problem of being pitch perfect out of the picture. They should be used as a means to teach your voice and not a means to an end, because they are no where as expressive as the natural human voice. There will never be an instrument that is as miraculously diverse as the human voice. Think about the range, dynamics, resonance, pitch, inflection, vibrato, modulation, and other multitude of affects that you control with your vocal cords simultaneously while singing a single melody line.
When it comes to recording live sounds you'll need a proper mixer with a decent sounding preamp and only a couple of decent microphones. The legendary Shure SM57 is a great dynamic microphone that will introduce you to the world of recording live sounds. For guitar you should choose to either record DI (direct in) or with a microphone on an amp. Both will ultimately go through a mixer into a DAW (digital audio workstation). You can purchase a DAW for very cheap nowadays and they usually will sound better than your computers sound card. You can get an inexpensive 4 channel mixer and a DI box for around $100, a great investment for recording guitars, bass, and drums.
If you are recording your guitar through an amp you should make sure your tone is really clean and solid on the front end. You shouldn't have to do too much to your guitar tone on the back end or mixing of the recording. Just make sure you aren't squealing out to many highs and you aren't overdriving your recording equipment which will cause clipping in the recordings, indicated by red lights on your equipment and LBS. Red means stop and turn me down a little bit.
You should try to use a condenser microphone, which captures a larger range of frequencies, for your vocal tracks. Mount a pop screen on your microphone stand to help eliminate any unwanted vocal sounds from hard consonants such as 'p' and 's' sounds. If you want a really full vocal sound then go back and double everything that you already recorded by attempting to sing it again exactly the same. This is called doubling and a great technique that has been used since the inception of multitrack recording studios. Hey, the Beatles did it all the time.
Now you have should have all of your preliminary tracks recorded. This is where you go back and listen to your song and decide again if you feel like the arrangement is as powerful as it can be. You may decide to change something small that could impact your listeners in a big way. If everything thats happening is making you feel pretty good then it's time to take a little break.
You will always need to give your composition space and time. Your ears and mind can become fatigued over time and you will want to take a very fresh perspective of the song when you start to mix and master it. If you go away from the song for a couple of days and you are still singing the hook, then you know have something that is going to be memorable and fun to work with.
Now we are going to sculpt the sound and tone of the entire composition. Try thinking of the song as an object that has shape and form. Listen to how all of the instruments fit together. You will want to work with each instrument so that it charges your song with energy and emotion, holding it up to the light instead of letting it fall flat because it sounds the same as everything else you've heard. Here is where you really create expression in the sound and define what you are doing tonally with your music. You should add and experiment with effects on everything to decide what really stands out.
Now it's time to mix. You want to get your general levels down first so that your instruments aren't competing to be heard. An easy way to do this is by using the soundfield and panning your different instruments. This will give them space so that they aren't overlapping frequencies. Make sure that your master level isn't going into the red which will cause digital clipping and ruin your ears and speakers rather quickly. A great piece of advice is to ask someone who you know that has worked on their own music and mixed something that you thought was good to give your track a listen. This will only improve your song and is a great way to find a future collaborator. If your levels sound even and the spacing of the instruments is sound then you it's time to create a master.
You can mixdown your track to a Stereo Wav Image and then open it using a mastering program. When you are Mastering you will bring the level of the song up to it's highest point without making it distort or clip and will also use a graphic equalizer to tweak the sound of the entire image. You can pull down your lows if they are to low or add highs to the track that weren't there before.
After you've finished mastering and think that the song sounds as Awesome as it's gonna get. Burn a cd of it. Listen to it on your home stereo and also in the car. This is where your audience will most likely hear your music and where you most likely hear any mixing mistakes. If you have to fix anything in the mix then go back to your saved files to remix and remaster the tracks.
It's important not to get hung up on mixing just one track over and over again. It is important to experiment with your music and grow as an artist; the technical proficiency will come with time and experience. So go and seek out other people who are making music like you and try to learn how they do it. Don't be affraid to ask a seasoned musician or engineer how they got a certain sound, they will more than likely show you how they did it because they've been waiting for someone to ask them and remember what is like when they first started.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
That will be no more. Lazerstar is coming back in full force with a brand new outlook on musical composition and technology! I have the entire 08 BIT HERO Album as a .zip file that you can download for free. Their are 2 brand new songs as bonus material and pictures from the album debut and a couple of really old live shows.
I'm working on new material right now and putting together another album which I will be blogging about here as it comes out of me. Bit by bit.
So if you haven't clicked on it yet then do it! Put it in Itunes! Email it to your friends, spread it around!
The Complete 08 Bit Hero Album with Bonus Material