COSMIC

I've just released a new EP, Cosmic.

It features two reworks of tracks from last year's Cosmos, and two brand new ones. The reason why I sometimes like to release different versions of the same song is because I find that there can be multiple expressions of the same lyrical or melodic ideas, where a shift in context can lead to a radical change in one's experience of the message or feeling. I often don't look at one track being the "original" and any others as "remixes", but each one as a different perspective, like the same light refracting through a prism to create a huge variety of colors.

Here's a track by track breakdown:

Betelgeuse uses the rap verses from "Go Wild" over a completely different beat. It's a sparser trap/EDM affair which is something I tend to find harder to accomplish - usually I'm good at fitting dense combinations of musical layers together and generating richness and interest that way, but here I was happy to be able to come up with a few much simpler but well sculpted synthesizer lines.

Big Box is what I'm calling my anti-suburbia anthem. I think the line "I criticize the dream, but I bought it too" best sums it up - while I'm addressing the issues that have arisen with globalization, greed, and cookie cutter lifestyles, I also have to acknowledge my own hypocrisy and the ways in which I have benefitted from some of those systems. I have to say - this is probably the most banging beat I've made all year.

Touch Down is a mid-tempo electronic track with a touch of reggae influence. It came together extremely quickly while I was visiting Switzerland last month - produced with any time I had squeezed in between obligations at the Zurich Film Festival. It's a great example of how the consistency of running a YouTube channel - trying to put out two videos a week - not only pushes creativity to new places, but also can hone one's craft to the point where a track and accompanying music video can be put together in less than a week.

Real has its counterpart in "Vice" off of Cosmos. In this case I'm not exploring an extremely different feeling or genre for the same song, but I had the starting point for a beat that ended up forking in two directions - so I made them both. I think the synths and drums work great in both of them in their own ways, but in "Real" I'm particularly fond of the new vocal cutups section, the buildup near the end, and the awesome sample of a woman talking about being true to yourself which I eventually shift into robot demon voice.

Hope you enjoy the new music. Stream or download Cosmic on iTunes and Bandcamp. Spotify coming soon!

 
 

147 WAYS TO WRITE A MELODY

I’m very excited about a musical experiment I’ve just conducted on my YouTube channel - I posted a half-finished melody and asked viewers to compose the rest of it however they saw fit. I listened to and analyzed all 147 entries using a variety of criteria, most of which I discuss in this video:

 
 

For the sake of time I omitted a few of the items that were either a little less popular or a little more nebulous, so I thought I’d dive into those here.

PHRASE SPEED

Given that my original melody plodded along very evenly in eighth notes, I marked down for each composition whether the second half was very similar in timing (97 entries), or incorporated generally faster or slower phrasing (40 and 18 respectively), or both (8). I don’t think we can draw very precise conclusions about this information, but given our natural inclinations to build towards a climax it would make sense that faster or higher-energy portions of a melody would occur in the latter part of a melody. Perhaps this activity centers around the golden ratio point? More study is needed.

REHARMONIZATION

I thought it would be more common to restate a large chunk of the melody over a new set of chords, but only two entries employed this technique. I wonder though if this might be due to the nature of my original melody and the type of movement it implied, or even the genres it might have suggested. I can think of many pop songs that restate the same melodic material over different chords, sometimes to great effect. 

This is also a fantastic tool when working on cover songs and remixes; hearing a familiar melody in a new harmonic context usually gives it a wonderfully fresh feeling.

AABA

Not the Swedish pop group. Though I'd bet they probably did use this structure from time to time. 

In the example of our melody, bars 1-2 contain the same rhythm as bars 3-4. Many people deviated from this, to varying degrees, in their 5th and 6th bars, and returned to it again for bars 7-8.

Interestingly, I noticed a sub-trend within the submissions that were structured this way. Several of the melodies’ B sections used the rhythm from the first half of the A section twice in a row. In other words, the rhythm in bar 1 was used for bar 5 and again in bar 6.

So we end up with an introductory rhythm, a restatement of the rhythm, a variation that is half as long but occurs twice in a row, and then the original again. How popular is this format? Well, in poetry, it comprises an entire genre, as men from Nantucket are well aware: the limerick.

We humans love AABA. A setup statement, a restatement for familiarity, something new to keep our interest, and the original thing again to give us closure

In fact, AABA is so powerful that if you really can't come up with more melodic material, you might be able to just use the same thing four times in a row, but change the lyrics on the third repeat

MULTI-TONALITY

For the advanced songwriters: you could consider taking modulation to the extremes. There were ten entries in our project that changed key centers very frequently, and within short periods of time. To many people this is a less palatable sound, but, done well, for theory nerds like me it’s one of the most exciting things you could ever attempt. Generally though this is a flavor that extends across an entire piece, or at least an entire section of a piece - it’s pretty jarring to suddenly throw in a bunch of modulations half way through an otherwise diatonic melody.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Thanks again to everyone who participated in this project. I’m thrilled with it. While the overall trends certainly point to familiar and favored approaches to developing a piece of music, I think the most amazing thing we heard was the incredible breadth of everyone’s unique creative nature.

Use the #chordstory hashtag on Twitter to join the discussion, hear more of the submissions, and post your own!

Secrets of Easy Home Mastering

(A preface: I don't want to take away from what a passionate, professional mastering engineer could do for your music. I've gone that route before and been happy with the results. Having another pair of ears on the job, especially when they belong to an expert, can be a great benefit. It's also costly. If you're looking for a simple way to up your home production value, or you're like me and have the inspiration to drop 100 songs a year but not the bank account to get them all professionally polished, this guide is for you!)

Mastering used to give me headaches because there were so many possibilities to sculpt a song's sound. I was told it was the stage at which you were meant to make your recordings shine, but I placed too much importance on that - because of course, you should also be trying to make things shine in mixing, and in production, and in performance, and all the way back through to the songwriting. 

I've learned that less is more. Mastering is a finishing touch, not a place to work out problems. The better all the elements leading up to it are, the easier of a job it is. While I now spend about twice as much time mixing as I used to, it's cut my mastering time down to probably a tenth of what it once was.

I've settled on a four-stage mastering process which is:
1. Maximizing compression for loudness.
2. EQ for musicality.
3. EQ for finer adjustments.
4. Limiting compression for the final bit of glue, and balance between tracks.

So here's the mastering chain I've used, and loved using, for the past few years. It's simply four plug-ins from Universal Audio, and it accomplishes both loudness and clarity with minimal effort. (I should mention that this is what I've settled on after trying all kinds of things from Waves, iZotope, Ableton, PSP, SPL, FabFilter, and Steinberg.) As I'm now dealing with consistently solid mixes, with all but the most out-there tracks I can just slap this on and tweak a few things and I'm good to go.

 
 

1. Precision Maximizer

This is the workhorse for volume and punch. I generally only touch the left two dials, with input between 1.2-2.4db and shape between 50-100% on most tracks. Extremely soft songs, like ballads, will be the exceptions where those numbers will be significantly lower.

 
 

2. Pultec Pro EQ

The curves on this EQ just seem to have a very musical shape. I give a boost around 60hz for my low end presence and I like a broad bandwidth lift at 12khz to make things sparkle. Both of these I'll dial in to taste, but on the boost knobs I rarely go above 3 for treble and never above 2 for bass. The occasional mids-heavy track will also benefit from a mild dip at 500 or 700.

 
 

3. Precision Equalizer

Most of the time I just stick this on to to get a clean low cut of everything under 20hz, and that's it. After having put in the work to make everything sound as good as possible with my mic placement, my mixing, and my individual track EQ, plus having the Pultec shape things immediately before this in the chain, there's usually very little left to improve. However, as it can exert more precise control than the Pultec, I will sometimes dial in small values to help with small things that are still sticking out - I'm talking 1db or less here.

 
 

4. Precision Limiter

The easiest thing of all 'cause it's just one dial. I'll have it land anywhere between 0.75-3db but in most cases it hovers somewhere near 2db. On a track where not a lot of compression is needed I might keep the Maximizer settings lower and have the Limiter bring up the volume. For the most part though, this is where I adjust for balancing loudness between tracks grouped on the same release.

That's it. And 95% of the time, that's all I need. I fully encourage any home recordist to pick up these plugins and use these settings if you haven't already settled on your mastering solution. The real lesson here is to be hyper attentive to your mix, which allows you to simplify mastering to just a few basic decisions. I'll talk about mixing in a future post!

 

 

As this will serve as a sort of master post for my mastering process - pun fully intended - I'll just add some quick notes about the other plugins I occasionally reach for. And then you'll know literally everything I use!

UAD Precision Multiband: For the type of song where I want something a little more drastic - forceful pumping bass, aggressive cutting highs - I'll add this to the beginning of the chain and tweak one of the many useable presets.

UAD Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor: This might come into play before or after the Pultec if I feel a track needs a little more compression on top of what the Maximizer can give me. It handles complex, dynamic material well.

UAD SPL Tube Vitalizer: This thing can really make things shimmer. While it's capable of much more, I tend to use it to bring out high end clarity and energy when a track is a bit muddled - probably the only instance where I'm using a tool to combat a problem I couldn't or didn't solve in mic'ing or mixing. Usually first up in the chain.

Waves L1 Ultramaximizer: For simpler material where loudness is more important than dynamics - sparse hip-hop beats, driving dance tracks - I'll use this instead of the Precision Maximizer. You can push stuff quite far without the audio breaking up.

Hope this has been helpful, and happy mastering!

Special Plug-Ins

 

Following up on my Staple Plug-Ins post, I wanted to share a few tools I use that do a great job at specific, unique tasks. Leave a comment below and let me know what your "special occasion" plug-ins are!

UAD Ocean Way Studios. I've had Ocean Way for a couple years and I'm still so pleasantly surprised every time I use it. It seems to completely transport recordings into different, and much nicer sounding environments. It's been a lifesaver when the tone of an acoustic instrument hasn't landed quite right, and it's also great in place of a reverb when you're looking to create spaces that are small but not totally dead.

Sonic Charge Bitspeek. There are a lot of vocoders out there, but this one has a beautiful tone and unmistakable crunchy edge, like if Stevie Wonder was a Speak & Spell. You can hear it on the bridge of my song "Desolation" (and you can compare it with the other very normal vocoder that also punctuates that song).

Soundness SoundSoap. This has been an essential tool for when I find myself recording in less than ideal locations, like a dentist's office. It almost magically removes any consistent background noise. Air conditioning, refrigerator hum, amp buzz - smell ya later!

Dada Life Sausage Fattener. Jet Engine turned me onto this. If something, anything, needs to sound FATTER, slap this on. Never fails.

 

Staple Plug-Ins

 

On my last post about home studio essentials, Sam asked if I could talk a bit about my go-to softsynths. I want to expand this to be about plug-ins in general, because 99% of the time I'm actually using only two synths! More on that later...

First I'll say this: I used to be a plug-in monster. I scoured the internet for hundreds of free VSTs, I bought lots of shiny "pro" ones and demoed many more. What I've come to realize is that there are very few absolutely unique plug-ins out there, despite what any of them might promise. A lot of them can produce extremely similar results. I have to laugh every time I get YouTube comments like "Ah, I can tell you used Zebra" - because they're invariably wrong.

But if so many things sound pretty close, why make this list? Well, besides good results, there's another very important thing to look for in a plug-in: workflow. The stuff that I use all the time has made the cut because it gets me where I want to go the fastest. Here are the plug-ins I use on almost every project:

Ableton Compressor. It's clean, flexible, precise, and has the simplest setup for sidechaining. This is my standard compressor for most jobs when I'm not looking for a lot of flavor.

 

Ableton Filter DelayAgain, it's simple but flexible. You have three delay lines based on different segments of the stereo field, followed by controls for filtering, timing, feedback, panning, and volume.

Native Instruments Guitar Rig. My go-to for any guitar and bass effects. There are plenty of others that are equal to it in sound, but Guitar Rig wins for having the best interface. Components and presets are tagged for easy browsing, and re-arranging the signal chain is as easy as dragging and dropping. Also, built-in tuner.

UAD Cambridge EQ. A super transparent EQ with some steep curves that will really get rid of the frequencies you don't want. I put this at the end of every channel to carve out low end space in my mixes, as well as for making any final adjustments.

UAD LA-2A. The best "character" compressor. There aren't a lot of settings to worry about; you can instantly dial in some rich, thick warmth.

UAD Lexicon 224. It's kind of seen as an "eighties" verb, but that doesn't give it enough credit. While you can definitely get those big digital washes on drums and vocals, there's a lot of flexibility in this plug-in to dial in lush spaces that sit beautifully in a mix.

Waves Renaissance Reverb. Aside from the occasions when I'll choose to get really fussy with a convolution reverb, this is the plug-in I pull up when I'm looking for realistic-sounding large spaces. Before getting the 224, I had RVerb on a return track in my default project template because I knew I'd always end up putting it on something.

And what were those two synths?

They're both from Native Instruments: Massive and Reaktor.

I'll say it again - flexibility. I like Massive because I know I can load it up whether I'm going after a twinkly bell, a soothing pad, or a dubstep wobble. The drag-and-drop modulation assignment makes so much more sense to my brain than disconnected knobs with drop-down menus. And as the name suggests, there's a ton to explore in this synth. You can get lost in all the tabs, or even in the sheer number of presets. But it's worth it!

And Reaktor is perhaps a cheat of an answer, because it encompasses so many cool synths and effects that have been built for it. Some of the official NI ones are fantastic: Razor, Monark, The Finger. But the user library is amazing as well - you can get thousands of homemade plug-ins for free. As far as I'm concerned, a lot of those are better than any of their expensive, professionally produced counterparts - Minimojo, MiniMoog, and Stephan V's Nords are some of the best vintage emulations I've ever come across; Laserbrew is some next level modulated reverb thing; there are countless samplers that will mangle your sounds beyond what any commercial plug-in would dare to. Not only that, but if you put in the time you can build some plug-ins of your own! (One of mine, "Kingdom Of Mod" is pictured above. I have a few others and they're all available exclusively through my Patreon.)

So those are my staples. Next week I'll talk about my "special occasion" plug-ins, and the week after that I'll reveal my mastering chain. In the meantime, I'd love to hear about what plug-ins you use in the comments!