What makes a successful collaboration

Successful collaborations are amazing. You can create something that neither of you could have created alone. You can learn a great deal about music, each other and yourself. You can build a close friendship that’s unlike any other.

But successful collaborations don’t just happen. You have to do them. You have to create them deliberately.

Successful collaborations almost always share the following characteristics:

Communication

This is the big one. If you’re going to work with someone, you must communicate. Probably more than you think you should. You both need to be open and honest about expectations, creative goals and working processes (workflow). You need to be open about personal preferences for everything from your favourite tea to your favourite reverb.

This also means being unafraid to offend or upset. If you’re holding back an opinion because you think it won’t be accepted, you’ll develop a dissatisfaction which can easily grow into resentment and disengagement. If you think your opinion won’t be accepted, you MUST talk about it. Being unafraid to offend, however, isn’t an excuse to be disrespectful. It’s possible to voice an unpopular opinion while being respectful and constructive. Sometimes it’s not easy, but it’s an essential skill for building strong relationships.

If your collaborator has a habit of overruling you or dismissing your contributions you need to address it and turn that attitude around. It might sound weird or feel uncomfortable, but opening such a conversation should start with something like “I feel uncomfortable when you ___. If this is going to work, we need to ___”. It’ll feel awkward (it always does) and it’s hard to strike the right balance between being assertive and being respectful. But you have to do it. If you don’t, Bad Things will happen. Trust me.

Shared creative direction

You both have to be rowing in the same direction. You have to agree on where you’re going and how you’ll get there. You’ll run into all sorts of problems if you have disagreements about what end result you’re both working toward. You’re in for a nasty surprise if – for example – you think you’re recording an album and your collaborator thinks you’re recording an EP. Or if you want to make dance songs and your collaborator wants to go more experimental. You’ll get caught up in numerous minor disagreements before you realise that there’s a fundamental difference in what each of you are trying to achieve.

Having a shared creative direction, however, means you’ll both need to compromise. To achieve something together, you both need to believe in the outcome. And that means giving each other enough creative space. As a simple rule of thumb: you’ll need to compromise just as much as you’d expect your collaborator to compromise for you.

Complimentary skills

For a collaboration to be effective, each person should have complimentary skills – or at least make complimentary contributions. For example:

  • You might be a great producer and mixer, and your collaborator might be a great singer and songwriter
  • You might be a great songwriter, and your collaborator might be a great singer or instrumentalist
  • You might be great at coming up with new ideas and sounds, and your collaborator might be great at refining and organising them
  • You both might be great at post-production, so you agree for one person to mix and the other to master.
There are many different ways to cut and dice the responsibilities. The best way of negotiating and agreeing on this is to start with an understanding of workflow. Once you’ve worked out each step that you’ll (collectively) take to complete each song, you can then assign each task to each person. You should do this together with your collaborator – keeping in mind what skills and capabilities (and available time) each person has.

Having done this, it should be quite clear who is responsible for what. There should be very little ambiguity about when each person needs to make a contribution (and what that contribution is). Just as importantly, there should be very little ambiguity about when each person needs to cede. For example, you might be a great songwriter in your own right but working on a collaboration where the other person is writing the songs. You need to accept that you can (respectfully!) make suggestions, but the final songwriting decisions are ultimately made by your collaborator. Don’t get precious about it – let the other person flex their musical muscles and express themselves.

Appropriate equipment

This should be pretty self-explanatory. Between the two (or more!) of you, you need the equipment to actually do what you want to do. It’ll be hard for a laptop composer to collaborate with a pianist if there’s nowhere to record a good piano sound. You’ll run into trouble trying to put together a great rock mix if you don’t have a good monitoring environment. Good luck recording an intimate vocal performance if you live next to a freeway or airport.

If you’re reading this blog, it should be pretty obvious to you. Most ideas are achievable – especially with modern technology. Be aware, however, that acquiring capabilities that you don’t already have can take time and money. Look out for unrealistic expectations in your collaborators. They might have great ideas – and if they’re passionate and charismatic, they can drag you along with them. If you’re not careful, though, you could end up halfway through a project before you realise you’ve committed to much more than you initially thought. The extra time and expense to acquire capabilities that you don’t already have can be painful. It can put you in a difficult position if you’ve both already invested your time and money into the project.

By conscientiously addressing each of those four factors at the start of a potential collaboration, you should be able to create some interesting music with a minimum of bruised egos or black eyes. Of course, there will always be disagreements and misunderstandings (we’re human after all!), but they can be managed and worked though if you put in the groundwork ahead of time.

-Kim.

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Using chorus to increase stereo width

Just a quick tip today – use chorus to make a sound extremely wide without changing the character of the sound. A simple digital chorus is often ideal for this – the one that came bundled with your DAW or a basic freeware plugin should be fine.

Use these settings as a starting point: 100% wet, 0% feedback, LFO rate below 1Hz, Depth 100%, Delay 0ms. You might also need to set the relative phase of each LFO to 180 degrees – this will make sure the left and right LFOs are cycling out of phase with each other. To reduce the pitch modulation, reduce the LFO speed.

Using a chorus like this is a little like using a Haas delay (delaying one side by less than 50ms) to increase stereo width. It’s better, however, because the chorus’s relative delay is constantly changing (whereas a simple delay is fixed). This means the illusion of direction (the Haas effect, caused by short delays) is changing, rather than static. This is more pleasant and less distracting to listen to.

I do this most often with pads and background synths when I want them to be ultra-wide – especially in situations where the source sound is mono. I’ll even use it when a stereo sound is already very wide but the left and right sides are too different for my taste, I’ll collapse the sound to mono and the re-stereoise it using a basic 100% wet chorus.

-Kim.

Find a big room

Find a big room and go record something in it!

It doesn’t matter where it is, or what you record… just find a large space and record something in it.

Large spaces usually have a very distinct sound to them. They also often have a noticeable reverberation. If you’ve chosen a public place as your big room, you’ll also have the benefit of having something interesting happening in that space too.

Use your imagination! Even if you don’t have a large room in your home (or even if you do), you can probably find somewhere large with an interesting sound. A shopping centre close to midnight? An underground railway station? A school hall? A cafe? A lift lobby?

You can choose to record the sounds that you find there or you can make some sounds of your own and record them. Don’t get stuck on preconceived notions of what is or isn’t a musical instrument – use this as an opportunity to break free and experiment!

And don’t worry too much about having to purchase equipment to do it. If you’ve got a professional field recorder, that’s great. If not, you can always use your mobile phone or borrow someone else’s gear. Again – break free of the notion that you must record with accuracy and high fidelity. The goal is to produce something interesting, not necessarily to document reality.

And then, make a point of incorporating the sound into your next project. Be creative. Use it as a background texture. Chop it up and turn it into percussion. Play it backwards for an eery atmosphere. Load it into a sampler, change the pitch, process it… Maybe that distant door slam can be subtly layered with your kick to make it sound huge. Maybe that train horn can be sampled and filtered to become a new synth lead. Maybe you could bring your vocalist and record some backing vocals in the subway. Or busy shopping centre.

Whatever you do, do something. Don’t just reiterate the same old approaches – be creative!

-Kim.

 

6+ ways to get bigger bass

This is about basslines, not (necessarily) the frequency range. The bassline is the harmonic foundation of a track. A solid mix often needs a solid bassline. So how do you get there? How do you stop your basslines from sounding weak or flabby? Here are some techniques to consider:

  • EQ. This is the big one. A lot of the time, EQ is all you need. The trouble is, each situation is different. I can’t tell you where to boost and where to cut without hearing your track. Because EQ is relative, the right settings depend entirely on the sound of your bassline and the direction of the mix. Pay close attention to how the kick and the bass interact. In some cases, it makes sense to have a bass with character voiced above a deep kick; in other cases it makes sense to have a deep bass voiced under the kick. Good monitoring is crucial here, because you’ll have to balance the tone across a wide range – sometimes all the way from subbass up to the top of the mix. And most lower-budget monitoring environments are pretty bad at accurately representing the critical range from the bottom through the lower mids.
  • Layering. You can’t boost what isn’t there. Often a bass sound will have a great character in the mids but doesn’t have a solid bottom end. Similarly, it’s common for a bass sound with a solid bottom end to be missing character in the mids. By layering two complimentary bass sounds, you can have the best of both worlds! Be careful though – effective layering can very easily take over the whole mix. When layering bass sounds, it often helps to filter the layers. For example – an upper layer that adds a lot of character in the mids may have a weak or inconsistent low end. By using a high pass filter to cut out that low end, a lower layer can be much more focussed and provide a stronger sound. Similarly, it often makes sense to use a low pass filter or dramatic EQ to take the mids out of the lower layer so that the upper layer can punch through more effectively. Lastly, don’t forget to pay attention to the relative levels of each layer. Often a mix needs one layer to be dominant – the other layer(s) usually can be much quieter and still provide enough definition and size.
  • Saturation. This is a magic trick for making almost any sound bigger – not just bass. When using saturation, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need much for it to be effective (unless you’re going for a fuzzy distorted bass). A little bit goes a long way. Also, different saturation tools respond very different to bass. It’s often useful to have several different options. Some saturation tools will rob you of low end, others will get too fizzy. A technique that often works well is to mix a saturated version of the bass with the original clean version, and to apply a low pass filter after the saturation. This will avoid the high end fizz produced by some saturation tools, and will often thicken up the lower mids.
  • Stereo width. Simply, wider sounds are often perceived as being bigger. It’s important, however, to find the right balance – too much stereo widening will reduce the body and foundation of the sound. It often makes sense to widen the mids and/or top end, while keeping the low end narrow.
  • Chorus / unison detuning. Similar to stereo widening, the use of chorus and unison detuning can make a sound bigger. And again – the balance is in using enough to make the sound bigger without reducing the body and foundation. Applying chorus or unison detuning to the mids and/or top end will avoid the bottom getting washy.
  • Sidechain compression. This is a popular technique – especially when triggered with the kick drum. This allows the bass to be louder when the kick drum isn’t sounding. By making the kick and bass take turns, the overall low end of the mix can be more consistent and powerful. It’s a distinctive sound, however, and isn’t appropriate for all kinds of music – particularly when the bassline has a distinctive rhythmic pattern. If in doubt, try it out.
  • Bonus technique: Bass amp / cabinet. Amp sims aren’t just for guitars! Processing a synth bass with a simulated bass amp can provide a dramatic tonal change. Saturation/overdrive and compression are also often included as part of the package. This technique isn’t subtle though – don’t reach of an amp sim if your bass is already pretty close to what you want. Amp sims are great when you have a weak or lousy bass that needs some major transformation. The sound of the cabinet can also help keep the energy of the bass consistent across a wide range of notes – this can be handy if your bassline is melodic or jumps around a lot.
  • Bonus technique: Compression. I think compression on synth bass is overrated. Most synths can be set up to provide a consistent level and punchy envelope without compression. Where compression shines, however, is on electric (or even acoustic) bass when performed by a musician. When working with recordings like this, applying the compression first will make the sound more consistent and help later processes – especially saturation.

With these techniques and some practice, you should have no trouble getting your bass to support the rest of your mix.

-Kim.

Visual feedback in plugins

When you’re starting out, it’s useful to use plugins that have numeric values and visual feedback. Big frequency graphs in EQ and transition diagrams on compressors are extremely valuable in helping you understand how these tools work. Bonus points if the tools have animated meters and graphs that dance along with the music. It’s a great way to learn how the sound is being changed. It’s a great way to learn how the parameters control how the sound changes.

But if you’re doing real work? Forget it.

Unfortunately, our eyes trump the ears. We hear what we see. Our perception of sound is so strongly influenced by our sight that sometimes even being aware of it doesn’t counteract the effect. It’s true.

It’s bad enough that your listeners don’t have a studio exactly like yours. They hear your sound differently to how you hear it. And that’s just considering the physical space. Now factor in the difference between what you’re seeing and what they’re seeing. Not only is their physical listening environment different to yours, but their visual stimulus is different to yours. Not only do they hear your sound different, but they perceive it differently.

It’s a losing battle, but we fight anyway.

We treat our studios acoustically. We purchase ridiculously expensive and over-engineered speakers and headphones. We do this even though our listeners will hear hear it differently anyway. No matter what we do. But we do it anyway – to try to hear the sound as plainly and as truthfully as possible. And sometimes it works pretty well.

But we should also strive to perceive the sound as plainly and as truthfully as possible. And that means controlling the visual stimulus in our studios.

We already attempt to create monitoring environments that are as neutral as possible. Maybe we should make our studios look as neutral as possible as well? Drab grey walls or sterile white doesn’t sound like much fun. Our studios are our workplace, and they should be comfortable and inviting. They are a place to be relaxed and focussed and creative. There should be a balance. And for the most part, it’s ok. Our studio environment is mostly static – it becomes a constant factor that our brains adjust to.

Dynamic visuals, however, are different. When your compressor is telling you that your kick drum is being compressed by 12dB, you’ll hear those 12 decibels. And you’ll be strongly influenced by how that 12dB looks. If the gain reduction scale goes from -15dB to 0dB, those 12dB will look like a lot of compression. And it’ll sound like a lot of compression too. On the other hand, if the gain reduction scale goes from -30dB to 0dB, those same 12dB will look like much less. And they’ll sound like much less too – if you’re watching the gain reduction meter.

The same goes for EQ. That 6dB cut looks (and sounds) like a lot when the frequency analyser’s graph scale is +/-9dB. Change the scale to +/- 24dB and suddenly everything changes.

But doesn’t the same apply to on-screen controls (such as knobs and sliders)? Certainly – but to a much lesser extent because the controls don’t respond to the music. Without visual feedback, you perceive the music with your ears only. There’s nothing visual that’s telling you what the music sounds like. To go back to the monitoring analogy, your perception will be plainer and more neutral.

There’s certainly a place for visual feedback. Ridiculous dancing graphics probably help car lovers enjoy their sound system. Full-screen iTunes visualisations are great for parties. Visual feedback in plugins are good for learning how they work and identifying what to listen for (it’s hard to listen for compression if your threshold is too high!)

But if you’re doing real work? Forget it.

-Kim.

Proportion and variety

It’s a funny word, but it’s critically important.

Proportion in music best understood as the relationship between the amount of musical material in a song and the length of time that the song goes for. By ‘musical material’, I’m referring to the unique ideas – not counting repeats or slight variations. Another way of thinking about proportion is as the amount of variety in the song. There has to be a balance – too little variety will result in the listener getting bored and too much variety will result in the listener getting confused.

With too little variety, a song will have too much repetition. This is a common problem among beginner dance music composers. You’ve probably heard it before – a seven minute track that only has eight bars of music in it. It’s just different variations and combinations of the same material.

If you’re working on a track like this, you probably have very little source material and you’re trying to squeeze it for all it’s worth. The most effective solution will either be to introduce some more original material (not just variations or developments of what’s already there) or reduce the total length of the track.

With too much variety, a song will have too many different ideas, with little connection between them. You’ve probably heard this as a song that has a lot of good ideas in it, but seems to have a weak identity or doesn’t seem to have anything that binds it together. Instead of being heard as a single focussed piece of music, it comes across as a collection of different ideas.

If this sounds like one of your songs, you probably need to separate the ideas out into two or three (or more!) individual songs. Focus on getting more mileage out of fewer ideas. By varying and developing fewer ideas (instead of simply adding more fresh ideas) your song will sound much more focussed and cohesive.

Of course, the goal is to find the right balance. This is where judgement and experience play such an important role, and why it’s important to listen for proportion in your own music and others’ music. Try to identify when you’re listening to music that feels like it’s repeating itself a bit too much (like a sense of not knowing how long the song will go for) or when you’re listening to music that keeps switching between different ideas (like switching the TV channel or radio station).

There’s no magic ratio here. It depends on your personal taste and your listener’s expectations. Listen to a lot of music and you’ll know it when you hear it.

-Kim.

Different types of workflows (with examples)

When planning a workflow for a song or other recording project, it helps to approach the production process as three distinct stages:

  1. Preproduction. This includes writing, rehearsing and refining the song. It also includes setting the creative direction and making decisions around sound and feel. It can also include deciding on matters like who is playing each part, and choosing a studio and engineer. Essentially, preproduction includes everything up to the point where the recording engineer hits the Big Red Button.
  2. Recording. This is the process of capturing the sounds that make up the song. Creatively, it includes the performances themselves as well as the decisions made by the producer and engineer to capture the sounds in a certain way. Choices around instruments, room treatment, miss, mic positioning, processing and recording media all play a part.
  3. Postproduction. This is the process of taking the recordings and presenting them as a stereo (or surround) sound that people can listen to. It includes editing, mixing and mastering.
Obviously, these lines are often blurred by the proliferation of accessible equipment and knowledge. While in the past each stage required different people with different skills and equipment, It’s now common for a single person to undertake all three stages with the same set of equipment. What’s more, the stages may not follow sequentially any more – for example, new parts can be written after others have been recorded, mixing can begin even while the song or track is being written and parts can be recorded as part of the writing process or even after mixdown.

Today’s tools are much more flexible, allowing our workflows to be much more flexible. Clearly this brings increases the freedom with which we express ourselves.

On the other hand, it becomes much more important to clearly define our workflow. Without having a clear workflow, it’s too easy to get lost in the processes. Most commonly, one of two things happen:

  • The process descends into endless revisionism. Even after a song is finished, it’s easy to make further edits, record more parts or even substantially change the structure of the song. By getting trapped in endless revisionism, a song is never ‘done’, and you’ll always feel insecure that it may not represent your ‘best’ work.
  • Decisions have little weight. When anything can be fixed later, it’s easy to postpone decisions. This can take the form of keeping dozens of takes or recording dry and never committing to a sound. This actually erodes your problem-solving capabilities. Each time you defer a small decision early on, you actually make your future self’s job more difficult. It’s like housework – the longer you put it off, the bigger and more difficult it gets.

So what kind of workflows are there?

Each artist is different and each project is different. To design an effective and appropriate workflow for a project, you need to consider the steps you want to take in producing a song.

Example 1

You might want to create a recording that has a live, organic feel. To achieve this, you’ll need to focus on writing and rehearsing, but you won’t need to spend much time on postproduction. Such a workflow might look like this:

  1. Initial writing (on paper!)
  2. Preproduction with producer or band
  3. Rehearsal with band or instrumentalists
  4. Recording
  5. Mixing

Notice that 60% of the production process happens before anyone start recording. By keeping the song in your head or scrawled on paper, you retain a fluid flexibility and openness to development that’s different to what happens when a song is recorded.

Example 2

You might want to take more of a remix-style approach to writing your tracks. To achieve this, you’ll want to start recording early so that you can chop up and rearrange performances as part of the composition process. Such a workflow might look like this:

  1. Initial idea sketch in sequencer
  2. Vocal recording
  3. Composition and instrumentation
  4. Instrumentation (perhaps with further recording)
  5. Mixing

Notice that this process makes use of the sequencer right from the beginning. If it’s being mixed in the same environment, some plugins or settings may be retained from the initial sketch all the way to the final mix. Also consider that with this workflow, the vocalist is not performing to the final track – s/he is singing without knowing what the end result will sound like. Normally this might result in a weaker performance, but that doesn’t matter here because the vocal recording will be chopped up and rearranged. This rearrangement will be a significant characteristic of the final product.

Example 3

You might have some external constraints on how you organise your time. For example, you might have access to your vocalist for only a short period of time to record several songs. In this situation, a workflow like this might make sense:

  1. Initial songwriting
  2. Rehearsal with instrumentalists/band
  3. Recording instrumentalists/band
  4. Recording vocals
  5. Mixing
In this scenario, sessions 1-4 would be completed for all songs before the vocalist would be required. Then the vocals could be recorded for all the songs in a focussed series of sessions.

Example 4

You might be working with an artist that is quite capable of writing and recording their own songs, but they need your help with composition advice. S/he might also wish to have the final mix done by a professional in a properly-treated room. In this situation, this kind of workflow would make sense:

  1. Preproduction
  2. Mixing

For this situation, the workflow (for you, as a producer!) is much shorter because the artist will be writing and recording in their own time. This approach often makes sense when you’re working with a particularly capable artist (or a low-budget artist).

Example 5

You might be working with an artist that has some very elaborate ideas but needs your help to realise them. S/he might already have the song written, but wants to explore different ideas and approaches with your guiding hand. In this situation, a workflow like this might makes sense;

  1. Initial demo vocal recording
  2. Instrumentation
  3. Instrumentation
  4. Instrumentation
  5. Final vocal recording
  6. Editing / mixing

In this situation, the initial vocal recording is used as a guide and template. The following three sessions would consist of writing and recording different instrumental parts. The vocals are recorded again in session 5 so that the vocalist can deliver an emotional and well-prepared performances that responds to the almost-final version of the song.

Hopefully that provides some more detail about how workflow planning can work in practice. Obviously, these five examples are just starting points – it’s up to you to figure out how you will go about producing a song. And as always, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You’ll get it wrong before you get it right. But you’ll only get it right if you’re not afraid to get it wrong.

-Kim.