Kitchen Consultation: Fred Akerstrand – Lies Remix

This consultation has been published with the kind permission of Fed Akerstrand.

Download or listen to the song ‘Lies Remix’ here:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8068578/Kitchen/Fred%20Akerstrand%20-%20Lies%20Remix.mp3

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Overall, this track has a lot of potential. It wouldn’t take much to make a significant improvement.

Composition

The main compositional weakness here is that the track is simply too long. It’s over seven minutes long, but probably has enough musical material to sustain it for perhaps four minutes.

In particular, there are three sections which take a long time to present very little. They are the intro (0:00-0:57), the ‘second verse’ (1:52-2:49) and the ending (5:10-7:17). Both the intro and the second verse are almost a minute long but don’t contribute much to the overall contour of the track – it’s as if the listener is stationary for those periods.

The intro plays an important role in introducing the track. By taking so long to do so, however, the energy and anticipation simply dissipates. The second verse in particular makes a musical statement that only requires about eight bars – not a whole minute. Like the intro, the ending plays an important role in the track, but taking over two minutes to wind down makes it likely that the listener loses interest before the track has ended.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to address these issues. Simply condensing these sections down to more appropriate lengths will do wonders for the momentum and contour of the track as a whole.

There are two other ways in which the composition of the track could be improved, but these are relatively minor. The first is in the vocals in the breakdown section (3:18-3:46). The harmonies work well most of the time, but occasionally the two vocal lines sing the same note in unison. This has the strange effect of making two voices suddenly and briefly sound as a single voice. It’s distracting and unsettling. If you were to address  this, I’d suggest changing either the melody or harmony so that they don’t have any unison notes.

The second relatively minor issue is the timing of the side chain compression. Compared to the other rhythmic elements, the side chain compression feels like it’s swinging too much. A little bit of swing is often beneficial to a track’s groove, but in this case it feels inconsistent with the other instruments. I suggest changing the timing of the side chain compression so that it swings a little less, or alternatively you could modify the groove of some of the other instruments (especially the hats) to swing more consistently with the side chain compression.

Mix

Overall, the mix isn’t too bad. The only two issues are the vocal sound and the subbass level.

Generally, the vocals lack intelligibility. This could be because your monitoring environment is very forward in the mids or because you simply went too far in ‘smoothing’ the vocal by cutting the mids. The fix here is simple – bring back the mids. This is where the character and intelligibility resides. You can still keep the soft and smooth sound – you don’t need to boost so much that it becomes honky.

The other issue is the subbass level. It’s slightly too loud. This is most likely a result of your monitoring environment having relatively weak subbass. In the short term, you should be more active in referencing your mixes to commercial releases while you work. Over the longer term, you can improve your monitoring environment. Depending on your studio, this might include acoustic treatment, adopting full-range monitors or adding a sub.

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This is an example of a single Kitchen consultation. If you would find this kind of feedback useful for your own music, get in touch with me.

– $20 will get you one consultation (basically the same as this example, but in private, with your music).

– $50 will get you three consultations or one studio demo (where I do an example edit or mix of your music to better demonstrate how some concepts would apply to your music)

– $100 will get you seven consultations or two studio demos.

The consultations can be for multiple songs or multiple revisions of one song. It’s up to you.

You can read more about the Kitchen here: http://kimlajoie.com/site/kitchen.html

When you’re ready, send me an email to kitchen at kimlajoie dot com.

-Kim.

Do something different with rhythm

Break out of your usual rhythms.

Think about all the usual assumptions you make when you’re programming drums and rhythms for other parts. People often speak of breaking the rules… what happens when you break your own rules?

Take the kick drum for example… do you only ever place the kick drum on quarter-notes? See what happens when you place some kicks on eighth-notes between the quarter-notes. Syncopate them.

Too easy? What about placing the kick drum on the first beat of each bar? Find out what happens when you start each bar without the kick drum. Don’t just do it once or twice – do it for a whole section. Maybe a few sections. Maybe make it a feature of your next song or track.

Same goes for the snare. How often do you place a snare (or snare-like sound, such as a clap) on the second and fourth beats? Do you ever think about why you’re doing it? What happens when you shake it up a bit? Put that snare somewhere else. Listen to how the other instruments respond.

Some of these explorations might sound ‘wrong’ when you listen back. Some might make you feel uncomfortable. Some might be weird, or even interesting. Rhythm plays a critical role in establishing the way the music feels. Is it quick and nimble? Slow and lumbering? Solid as a clock? Wobbly and unpredictable? It’s right there in the rhythm.

Even if you try out a bunch of ideas and eventually return to your comfort zone, you’ll have a better understanding of why your comfort zone appeals to you. You’ll be in a much better position to deviate – even if only slightly – in a way that makes musical sense, rather than simply making random variations.

Drums are usually the main contributors to a song’s sense of rhythm. But don’t limit yourself. Break out of the usual rhythms you use for basslines, accompaniment parts, even melodies.

Still too easy? Try some less-common time signatures. Try 6/8. 5/4. Alternate between 6/4 and 4/4. If you’re feeling adventurous, go for 7/8 or 7/4. This kinds of time signatures will force you to shake up your usual rhythms. And you’ll invent something fresh.

-Kim.

 

How to start a collaboration

I’ve written before about some of the benefits of collaborating with other musicians. In order to start a collaboration, however, you need someone to collaborate with.

Your first choice should be your friends. You already know each other and, more importantly, you already trust and understand each other. Trust and understanding is essential to any successful collaboration. If you have good friends, you’re already halfway there. Even if you don’t share the same taste in music, there are ways to make it work. You might need to be creative!

If you don’t already know any musicians (or they’re not available to work with you), you’ll need to look elsewhere. Go to where the musicians are in your community. Small-scale gigs are often ripe with musicians looking for opportunities. It could be open mic on a sunday afternoon at a local cafe. It could be an indie album launch. Put yourself out there. Soak up the music, make a genuine effort to understand and connect with the music. Think about how a musician’s skills might compliment your own. If you think there might be an opportunity with some musicians, approach them after the show!

Don’t be afraid of rejection. Don’t be surprised if you get knocked back. Not everyone has the time. Not everyone has the inclination to start something new. Not everyone likes your style. It’s not personal. Humans come in many different varieties and flavours. It’ll take a few approaches before you find someone who might be interested. It’ll take a few collaboration before you find someone who really clicks with you. Not every seed grows, but we plant so many because we don’t know ahead of time which seeds will grow. Don’t let it get you down – just keep planting seeds.

When you start working someone, it’s pretty easy to get ahead of yourself. You’re both excited, you’re both keen to create something amazing. Great! Keep that feeling! But don’t be ambitious – start small. Just commit to working on a single song together. Maybe even a small contribution to an existing song. You need to establish a workflow. You need to settle on a common language. You need time to explore each other’s personal taste. So take it slow. Take it easy. Don’t put too much pressure on yourselves to write and record an EP or an album just yet – just have fun and get to know each other.

So fast-forward a few months. You’re still going strong, you’ve got a few songs behind you, and you’re both itching to take on something bigger. Before you embark on a larger project together, you’ll need to sit down together and agree on a few things. It doesn’t have to be a legal contract, or even a formal written agreement. It does, however, have to start with a conversation and a shared understanding of what you’re about to do. At the very least, you should consider these questions:

  • What will be the creative direction for the project? What will it sound like?
  • What will be the creative contribution of each person? What will be the non-creative contribution (equipment, studio space, time, other skills, etc)?
  • How much music are you going to make? Will it be an EP? An album? A drip feed of singles?
  • What timeframe are you working towards? How long will it take? When do you expect to complete it?
  • What’s going to happen when it’s finished? Will you perform it live? Will you sell it online?
  • If there are any costs, who’s going to pay for them? If there’s any income, what will happen to it?
It’s usually a good idea to write down what you’ve agreed. It doesn’t have to be anything formal – even just a plain text file is fine. Even better if you email it to each other so you’ve both got a copy to refer to. The agreement is not set in stone – you can always change it later on if you want (so long as everyone agrees to the changes!). Having it written and distributed, however, will avoid misunderstandings and faulty memories.

Now, get to work!

-Kim.

 

Examples of using group busses

Group busses are a versatile and useful mixing technique. They’re often used in a variety of different situations:

  • Distorted guitar stacks. It’s quite common to layer or doubletrack (or tripletrack or quadrupletrack) distorted guitar parts in order to make them sound bigger. Sometimes the layers are all recorded with the same setup (same guitar, same amp, same mic position, etc), but it’s just as common that the layers are recorded with different setups. The layers blend to form a composite guitar sound that the listener hears as a single diffuse part. Because all these layers function as a single part, it often makes sense to treat them as a single channel when mixing the bigger picture. By using a group bus, the layers can all be treated as one. This means that when you’re fitting the guitars in the context of the rest of the mix, you can set the level and tone of the guitars as if they’re a single part.
  • Backing vocals. Much the same as distorted guitars, it’s common to treat layered backing vocals as if they’re a single sound source. This is especially useful when there are several layers that are singing the same words with the same rhythm. Unlike layered distorted guitars, it’s also common the different layers of backing vocals to be singing different harmony parts. Another difference is that backing vocals often benefit from some compression (distorted guitars often already have flat dynamics due to the distortion). When dealing with backing vocals, it’s often useful to compress each individual channels as well as the group bus. That way, each compressor can work gently while still resulting in a smooth and consistent sound.
  • Pads. While not as commonly spoken about, grouping pads can be very useful for the same reasons as distorted guitars and backing vocals. Some particularly interesting effects can be created by combining several layers of different pulsing pads and then compressing the group. Done well, this will produce a texture that is more consistent in level but is constantly changing in tonality.
  • Drum kit. This is a huge topic! The way drums and compressors interact can be quite complex. The sound is influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from the way the kit is played to the selection of kit components to the choice of miss and recording medium to the design and settings of the compressors. Like backing vocals, it’s common to compress individual drums in addition to compressing the drum group bus. Used lightly, drum group compression can give the whole kit a sense of glue and life and density. Just remember not to overdo it – too much compression will flatten your drums and make them difficult to work into the mix!
  • Kick and bass. This is a technique that has been used subtly for some time, but has recently become more fashionable with modern dance music. By grouping the kick and bass and applying strong compression to that group, the bass will duck slightly when the kick is sounding. This will make the low end of the mix more compact and solid. This is now commonly taken to extremes with the use of side chain compression – instead of using a group bus, the bass is processed with a compressor that is keyed (‘side-chained’) from the kick.

Group busses are most useful when you have several tracks that all perform a similar function in the mix and you want to either glue them together or otherwise treat them as a single unit. Of course, you can group anything you like. It’s important, however, to keep in mind that sometimes it doesn’t make sense to use group busses. Often it doesn’t make sense to group tracks that aren’t related to each other or need to remain separate.

On the other hand, you might find some interesting sounds by using group busses in unusual ways…

-Kim.

 

What’s the difference between workflow and project management?

As concepts, project management and workflow are similar and related concepts, but they’re not interchangeable. They’re not the same thing.

When I discuss workflow, I’m discussing the order or tasks required to reach a goal such as recording a song. Usually a workflow is short and general enough that it can be applied over and over again. For example, a workflow for a recording song might be used ten or twelve times for an album. It’s often a repeatable series of steps that has worked in the past and is likely to work in the future.

Workflow is extremely useful because it provides a degree of measurability and predictability to the production process. It allows you to determine how long it’ll take to complete a piece of work. It will help you schedule the work so that you have a high degree of confidence that it’ll be complete within the expected timeframe.

Project management, on the other hand, is about taking care of the bigger picture. I see it as two sets of activities:

  1. Planning and coordinating. This includes balancing cost and time requirements for different components of the project, recruiting and coordinating people, negotiating arrangements with partner businesses and tracking progress against the plan. Planning and coordinating needs to be done in full knowledge of the time and resource constraints of the project. This is the easy part.
  2. Responding to changes. All projects have hiccups. Humans are beautiful and messy and often unpredictable. Responding to changes can include activities that are primarily ‘mechanical’ – such as rebalancing resources, readjusting schedules and even changing the scope and outcomes of the project. It’s important to understand, however, that responding to changes often requires a human component too. Your artists and collaborators and partners are human beings and have feelings and desires and fears and you need to be mindful of this at all times. When plans change, people can feel hurt or disappointed. They might feel responsible (whether real or imagined). They probably have a different impression of you than you do of yourself – and the less you communicate the greater that difference will be.

-Kim.

 

Kitchen Consultation: Galen Conroy – Turnstile Pottery

This consultation has been published with the kind permission of Galen Conroy.

Download or listen to the song ‘Turnstile Pottery’ here:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8068578/Kitchen/Turnstile%20Pottery.mp3

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Composition

For this song, the basic structure of the song is pretty good. The amount of material is well-balanced with its length. It’s also got a clear contour that can be easily followed.

I think the two ways the composition of this piece could be improved are in the transitions between sections and the buildups.

At the moment, most of the transitions between sections are just clean cuts. While clean cuts are sometimes the best choice, using a variety of transition types can give a track a greater sense of scope and finesse. Also, by making some of the transitions softer or more gradual, the instant cuts will become more effective and noticeable.
It’s also important to think about buildups. Buildups are different to transitions between sections because a buildup is usually longer and more dramatic. It often makes sense to think of a buildup as its own section (not just a transition between two sections). Turnstile Pottery has a bit of a white noise buildup in there, but I think there’s an opportunity here for much more.
For this kind of music, it makes sense to explore the expressive range of each synth sound. Don’t just keep the programming static – automate some internal parameters. Alternatively, automate some effects. Explore ways of making each sound bigger or smaller, thinner or thicker, narrower or wider. If you’re mainly using samplers instead of synths, look at ways to add similar layers underneath the main sound. Bring in (or crossfade between) those similar layers to change the tonality of the sound without it sounding like two separate instruments.
It’s not about adding more just for the sake of it, but about giving the music a greater voice – letting it speak more clearly.
Mix
The mix itself has an interesting aesthetic – quite dry and knocky. I won’t suggest it needs to be wet and lush, but the mix itself is somewhat two-dimensional. There’s not much front-to-back depth.
Because the sonic aesthetic is quite dry, it’s probably not appropriate to add depth by adding reverb or ambience. Instead, focus on pulling instruments back by making them duller, narrower and more diffuse.
Making a sound often means using a lowpass filter. This usually works, but sometimes it’s too blunt a tool. If you need a more subtle way of using tone to pull back an instrument, try an EQ cut around 2.5kHz. This will subdue the character of the sound in a different way, and might be more appropriate in context.
Making a sound narrower will also help pull an instrument to the background. The smaller and more masked it is, the less attention the listener will pay to it. Of course, this works best when the overall volume is reduced as well.
Making background instruments more diffuse is another technique that may work well with this mix. Obviously, this is not a lush mix so extreme or obvious modulation won’t be appropriate – instead focus on more subtle diffusion. Try a single-voice chorus, or slight doubling.

–==–

 

This is an example of a single Kitchen consultation. If you would find this kind of feedback useful for your own music, get in touch with me.

– $20 will get you one consultation (basically the same as this example, but in private, with your music).

– $50 will get you three consultations or one studio demo (where I do an example edit or mix of your music to better demonstrate how some concepts would apply to your music)

– $100 will get you seven consultations or two studio demos.

The consultations can be for multiple songs or multiple revisions of one song. It’s up to you.

You can read more about the Kitchen here: http://kimlajoie.com/site/kitchen.html

When you’re ready, send me an email to kitchen at kimlajoie dot com.

-Kim.

How to use group busses

Group busses are a feature of many mixers (physical and virtual). They’re often just like regular track channels, except they don’t receive their audio from a disk file, tape channel or live instrument. Instead, they receive their audio from one or more other channels within the mixer. Group busses are sometimes also referred to as submixes.

Group busses are useful if you want to apply any processing (including gain) to several instruments as if they’re one. The most common types of processing to use on group busses are similar to what you’d use on a single channel:

  • Gain. More common known as the volume fader. This allows you to adjust the volume of a group of instruments all together. This is most useful when the grouped instruments all serve a similar function in the mix, or are even perceived as a single sound source. Stacked backing vocals or synth pads are good examples of this. Even though you might have a complex pad sound that is made up of four or five layers, the end result is that they combine to form a single sound source. Adjusting their volume as a whole (rather than each individual track individually) is faster and maintains the relative balance of all the layers.
  • EQ. This allows you to adjust the tone of a group of instruments. Because EQ is (theoretically) a linear process, applying an EQ change to a group bus is the same as applying the same change individually to each of the individual channels. This can save a lot of mixing time when you have a stack of instruments that have a similar tone. Stacked backing vocals are a good example of this. You might have as many as a dozen different backing vocal parts all recorded by the same singer in the same room with the same mic. If all the tracks need a 3dB dip at 2.5kHz, it’s much easier to apply this tonal change once (at the group bus) instead of a dozen times.
  • Compression. This is where it starts to get tricky. Group bus compression is spoken about a lot but often misunderstood. It’s often used to ‘gel’ several instruments together. When one instrument in the bus triggers the compressor, the subsequent gain reduction will apply to the whole group. That means the other instruments will be compressed even though they didn’t trigger the compressor. This can be as subtle as some gentle gain riding through to dramatic and deliberate ducking. This can be effective in helping instruments to ‘gel’ because the uniform gain reduction tells our brains that the sounds are behaving in sync. They’re acting as one, thus should be listened to as one. Keep in mind, however, that this works best when the instruments are quite dynamic and work the compressor. The more the compressor is working, the more audible the effect will be.

With this in mind, you should be able to make effective decisions around when and how to use group busses.

-Kim.