Categories
Music Production

Transition Elements in Electronic Music

When arranging electronic music, we often get fixated on things like chords, melody, drums ect. Its easy to forget some of the other, more subtle elements that make a track flow. In this post I’ll focus on transition elements, and how I use them.

I primarily work in Ableton, but these techniques will work in any other DAW.

Remember there is always a transition in, and out of a section, so you may need an effect to automate into a changing of sections, and automate out of a new section after the switch.

Filter Sweeps

One of the most basic transitional elements is a simple filter sweep. This is where you choose a filter, and automate the cutoff over time. 2 basic types of sweeps are the basic high, and low pass. The effect is to slowly limit the range of frequencies for an instrument to create contrast between sections.

So the idea here is to choose a high pass, and automate the cutoff up, or do the reverse for the low pass. This will create space and make it so the next section appears to hit harder on the transition. Another option for more a more subtle transition is to automate a shelf.

In this case I would keep the frequency fixed, but automate the gain downward on the low frequencies so that the low end gets subtle smaller, then jumps back in the next section.

Risers and Noise Sweeps

Another common technique I use, is risers, or sweeps. I used to use pre made ones from sample packs a while ago, but now I make all of them myself. It is relatively simple to make one. One of my favorite simple sweeps involves just white noise.

In this case I chose to use Operator, but you can use any instrument that makes noise. I just set the oscillator to white noise, but you can play around with different noise types, and layer them. On Operator I like to set the spread to 100%, then all I have to do is automate the cutoff frequency. I often make midi clips of a single sweep up and down, and at varying lengths.

I might do 2 bar sweep up, 2 bar sweep down, 1 up, 1 down, ect. This way I can easily copy and paste them around the track to smooth out transitions.

Stereo Image

Another trick for transitions, is manipulating the stereo image. This can be done a variety of ways, with stereo image tools, or effects that support m/s mode. As a drop is approaching you can cut either the center or the sides of the stereo image, resulting in the image appearing to move around. An example is in the track “Main Frame” as one of the drops is approaching, I automate the width parameter on the stock Ableton plugin down to 0, before dropping it back to 100% on the pads. The effect is that the pads go mono right as the transition is coming up at about 1:42.

Another way to do this is with an eq in M/S mode and you can slowly filter off either the center or side channels. There are plenty of 3rd party utilities too. Waves Center can make it easy to automate the levels of center and side channels.

Creative Effect Transitions

Another type of transition involves subtly automating any effect as a transition is starting or ending. Common ones I like to use are chorus, flanges, reverbs, and bit crushers. One thing to keep in mind when adding one of these types of effects is that it can make that instrument stick out too much. Bit crusher is a great example of one that can make a track quickly sound too harsh. For these cases I like to use Abelton’s instrument rack which lets me automate multiple effects at once. So what I might do is automate the volume down a little, perhaps also add some eq so that as the bit crush effect becomes more prominent, the track stays at the same volume and blends better.

In “Heat of the Night” You can hear some bit crush come in on the transitions right before the vocals come in.

Looking closely, what happens is as I turn the bit crusher up, the high end will get a shelf and the gain gets turned down on the utility, so I can safely crank up the bit crush effect and have the synth still sit in the correct spot in the mix.

Cymbals

Cymbals are always an easy element to add. I like using acoustic cymbal samples because I like the way they blend in electronic music. Find a few good crash and splash samples and add them right as sections change. To get even more mileage out of cymbals, you can simply reverse them. You can add a rev cymbal into a change, and a regular crash coming out of one.

Conclusion

Transition elements are very important in electronic compositions and can make even simple songs sound more interesting by adding “momentum” between parts. There are a few methods I outlined above, but the possibilities are infinite even with these few methods. The only thing to keep in mind is to make sure that your transition elements don’t stick out of the mix and draw attention away from the other instruments. These should always be very subtle. If its distracting, it’s probably too much. Anyway, give some of these a try, and happy automating!

Categories
Music Production

Processing Drum Bus in 2021

Lately I’ve gone 100% DIY and now I’m producing, mixing and mastering myself. Here is a quick peek at how I process my drum bus.

I work primarily in Ableton, and most of the time I just use the stock drum plugin and drag and drop samples in. I actually use a single lane for each drum type. So I will have one for kick, snare, claps, toms, hats, crashes, and possibly a few for extra percussion. All of these are then joined into a drum bus. Its a fairly simple setup and I don’t use any parallel busses or anything, just 1 bus going straight to master.

The first step in drum mixing in my workflow is balance between kick and snare. I add hats, then percussion after that. I see a lot of posts about what level kick and snare should be, but in my opinion you can’t put a number to it. The reason is that every kick and every snare is completely different. Some are long, some short, some have more low end, others more high end. In my opinion you just need to sound it out. There are other methods of doing this where the kick goes outside the drum bus, but I like grouping all percussion instruments into a single bus.

Drum Bus Plugins

My 2 main buss plugins are Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor and Standard Clip. For the compressor I usually have the side chain to filter out low frequencies turned on. I usually keep the attack all the way slow. I have the release knob usually on the slowest or second slowest setting.

Shadow Hills Compressor

Clipping With Ducking

The soft clipper will just cut off the peaks of the percussion, usually the kick and snare peaks together. So what I try to do is contain the peaks of the drums with the clipper, and use ducking on other tracks to retain the illusion of dynamics. So if I clip 3db off the kick for example, I would duck at least 3 more db from the other tracks so that it still sounds like the kick is towering over the other instruments, even though its not.

I’ll make another post on different specially types of ducking I use, but my bread and butter method is just the stock compressor. Once again, its impossible to know the exact attack and release settings because it will depend on the kick and the bass, but I typically put this on most tracks. I try to get the attack down as low as I can without getting click sounds, and I adjust the release to shape the sound of the pump. I’ll set it quick if I want it to be more transparent, and slow if I want more of a volume dip. I usually have the look ahead all the way up, and ratio between 2 and 4

Categories
Music Production Synthwave Vaporwave

Synthwave Vs Vaporwave

I’ve seen lots of posts on this, so decided to give my take on the topic. Synthwave and Vaporwave are both kinds of retro inspired electronic music subgenres that both have the same kind of nostalgia vibes.

Aesthetic Differences

While both genres share similar visual influences, I would say that synthwave draws more from mid 80’s synth pop. It uses a lot of 80’s style neon colors, and futuristic artwork. Vaporwave draws more from mid 90’s-mid 00’s artwork. It often uses themes from early, and low poly computer graphics.

Production Differences

Production wise, there are a few key differences I find between the two. Vaporwave, not always, but often is sample based. Lots of Vaporwave producers use samples from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to create new tracks. Often the degraded tape feel of lofi is desired. In Synthwave, I hardly ever hear any samples, or lofi effects. I find that vaporwave is often slower, and can sound closer to smooth jazz mixed with lofi. Synthwave is usually more high energy. Slow, or down tempo synthwave often sounds like space music.

Synthwave sounds

Synthwave has some common recurring production elements. One common element is the gated reverb snare sound. This type of snare was popularized in the 80’s and used for lots of electronic synth pop. The sound is pretty noticeable because it will sound like the snare is in a huge arena, or hall.

Another common synthwave element is the plucked bass. This type of bass is created by using a synth with a quick attack, and short sustain and release. This is often coupled with a filter which quickly cuts off the high end. The resulting sound is a short bass stab. Then these bass plucks are often put in patterns of repeating 16th. Check out this sample from the track “Nightcrawler”.

Vaporwave Sounds

Vaporwave sounds much jazzier compared to synthwave. Another common vaporwave technique is to slow down, and pitch shift down samples, or the entire song. Here is an example of the track “56 Kbit/s Magic” which is much more down tempo, and borderline funk.

Synthwave v Vaporwave: Dawn of Vaporsynth

“The Zone” is one of my favorite tracks that combines synthwave and vaporwave elements. It has the reverby snare and drums from a 80’s synth pop track, but also has some degraded lofi sections, and funk bassline. There are lot of intricate melodies and counter melodies in this one, along with some chromatic chords. I think the melodies and harmonies on this one are too jazzy for a synthwave track, but are done with synthwave style synths. One unique thing about this track is that Cliche64 plays guitar on this one instead of me!

Do I think there is overlap? Absolutely

Categories
Mastering Music Production

What’s In My Mastering Chain in 2021

Since the beginning of lockdown I had some more time to work on polishing music so I decided to take the dive into self mastering. I did some mastering in the past but never considered myself a mastering engineer. Now that I’ve been writing a lot more music, I like to be able to control every aspect of the chain all the way till the end. So here is a breakdown of my chain fof 2021.

The Setup

So this is a bit odd, but I do most everything in Abelton, in the same session. So I’ll producer, mix, and master all in one project. Does it destroy my CPU? Yes. Is it convenient? Also yes. I like doing this because I can fix things in the mix without having to re open a session and re-export every time I want to change something. This way, I don’t have to do that much heavy handed changes in the mastering chain.

The Mastering Chain

Eq -> Compress -> Saturate -> Clip -> Limit

First in line is EQ. My go-to is Fabfilter ProQ3. I use it to gently roll of the side channels in the low end and sometimes add a little bit of side boost with the high end. I’ll occasionally do some minor cuts, but I’d rather go look in the mix and cut it directly on that instrument. I also may do some bumps for presence or bass. I never do any sort of harsh eq moves here.

Next compression. My current choice is Plugin-Alliance Shadow Hills compressor. Usually very light, only for glue. No more than 1db of reduction here. I’ll toggle some of the settings around and see what sounds good.

Next, saturation. Currently using Sonnox inflator. A little goes a long way here. Just play with the 2 sliders until I get something I like.

Clipping stage is next, and I use Standard Clip. Depending on the mix I can clip quite a bit of db here. I always have it in Pro mode, with 8 or 16x over sampling. The clipper allows the heavy loudness processing to split between the clipper and the limiter, instead of having the Limiter do everything.

Finally Fabfilter Pro-L2 for final limiting. Usually, slow attack, fast release, and low look ahead. I don’t really mind inter sample peaks, so I keep the true peak at almost 0db.

Utilities

After the actual processing chain, I add a few utilities. Metric AB from plugin alliance helps me quickly a/b different mixes. TC electronic Clarity M gives me an additional meter that doesn’t take up screen real estate. Finally I’ll add Sonarworks to do some room correction.

Categories
Music Production Synthwave

Making Cymbals and Percussion More Interesting

When adding cymbals and percussion in tracks, the obvious starting places to create more interesting sounds is to pan, eq, and pitch shift. For example, you can have 1 high hat sound, and you can pitch it 4 times up, creating 4 different hat sounds, and pan them left to right. This will add some interesting dimension to the percussive elements, but I like to take it a step further.

Creating pseudo random variation

In addition to some of this basic panning, I like to add some subtle extra effects that change over time. One of my favorite things to do is to add a Haas, or widening effect, and modulate it over time with an LFO. A great tool to do this is Khz Multipass that comes with the Slate bundle. I like it because it has some built in LFOs, and multi band effects. So one of my starting points is to put a Haas effect on the high channel of hats or shakers and set the delay to modulate.

What I also like to do is make the LFO rate be something that won’t sync to the BPM of the track. The reason I want to do this is because I want every single bar to be slightly different. I can set the LFO to repeat at something synced to the bpm such as 1/4 notes or even 1 bar. What will happen is that the effect will start at the same time every bar, and what I want to happen is that it never lines up at the beginning of the bar. This will result in completely random variations across the track. After adding some width, I also play around with some other effects at random like chorus, phasers ect.

Using Stock Plugins

It’s not necessary to use Multipass to accomplish this. I mainly use Ableton, and can also do it with the built in LFO, map it to 1 side of a delay, and play around with the rest of the knobs to taste. It’s also possible to just open up an automation lane and draw some random lines.

If you don’t have an LFO tool, you can also just draw out some random automation in an automation lane.

This works on all sorts of percussion instruments. I often put subtle delay, chorus, flanger, distortion on any percussive instruments like bongos, claps, and shakers. The only percussion element I typically would not modify with one of these effects would be kick and snare, since they are the most important elements to drive the rhythm.

What does it sound like?

Here is an example with Jetfire Prime on a synthwave track where the stereo modulation on the hi-hats is really apparent. If you listen closely to the high hats they get super wide at some points and then narrow. It gives it just another layer of variation that doesn’t repeat exactly on beat, so every measure, the width will be slightly different, but never repeating the same.

Categories
Music Production Music Theory Vaporwave

Modal Mixture in Electronic Music

Modal mixture is a common technique in Jazz and Classical, and even in video game and music scores, but often overlooked in electronic music. Most electronic music revolves around diatonic harmony, meaning harmonies derived only from the 7 notes of the major scale.

What is Modal Mixture?

Mode mixture is simply mix and matching harmonies from a parallel mode. The most common method is to line up the parallel major and minor modes (Ionian and Aeolian) and in the major key, borrow the chords from Aeolian. This means if we are in the key of C major, we can now borrow chords from C minor.

There are some notes overlapping, but not all, and the parallel minor chords result in 7 brand new chords to spice up any progression! These take a little more finesse to fit into a progression, but they provide some very interesting harmonies. The idea is the create a chord progression using chords from the second column, then sneakily throw in, or swap one chord from one of the available chords on the 4th column. This expands our pallet of chords from 7 to 14! Each one takes practice to figure out where it best fits. It takes a lot of tinkering to fit them in, but it’s very satisfying when you get them in just the right spot.

This expands our pallet of chords from 7 to 14!

One of the important things for creating progressions with mixture chords is to make sure that the naming convention makes sense. For example, C minor is the relative of Eb major, so chord names should be using flats, and in the list of chords, each letter name should only be used 1 time.

If we look closely, we see that there are actually 3 new notes, the minor 3rd, minor 6th, and minor 7th. The root, 2nd, 4th, and 5th are the same between Aeolian and Ionian.

Examples

Writing about music theory is cool, but seeing and hearing examples is where it all comes together.

Let’s take a look at the track “Icicles”. The main progression is

Cm9 AbM9 Fm7 GbM7

vi | IV | ii | bIII

So the progression is kind of in C minor/Eb major but we get an extra chord GbM7 which is borrowed from the key of Eb minor. When ends up happening is that the progression sounds like the tonal center is kind of not exactly C minor, but also is. It blends in fairly well and doesn’t sound like an out of place chord.

Categories
Lofi Music Production Vaporwave

Why I don’t use Samples

By samples I mean full samples from other tracks. A sample is basically a piece of audio recorded from an existing song. Lots of types of music are sample based. Essentially, a loop from an existing song is taken, modified, and new track is built around that. Lots of vaporwave, lofi, and future funk uses samples from old songs. There is a lot of room for creativity in manipulating the samples.

Remix vs Cover?

I do lots of video game covers, but they are technically not remixes. Sometimes the terms are confusing because they get interchanged, but technically, a remix is a type of song that also uses original audio. A cover rebuilds the sounds without using the original audio. If you were to take the midi from a song, run it through your own synths and create audio, then its a cover. If you record the actual song and put it in your song, then its a remix.

Remixes and other sample based songs come with a lot of legal difficulties because it’s hard to get the right permissions to use audio samples. Cover licensing is fairly easy to come get. A lot of distributors offer low cost licensing options for doing covers. They usually take care of sending the original songwriter a cut of the royalties. The reason that I don’t make sample based vaporwave isn’t rooted in the legal issues, but for me, its simply workflow.

But Why Tho?

I don’t have a DJ background so I don’t have experience stitching songs together. I do have lots of experience playing in bands and writing parts for multiple instruments. For my workflow in Ableton, It’s easier for me to write the parts out in midi, and create an arrangement around that. I like to move notes around in different midi lanes, and it’s not possible to modify individual instruments on rendered samples. In a sample, you can’t easily change things like the chords. I also don’t have a collection of songs that I would use for sampling, and wouldn’t even know where to start looking.

Samples or no Samples?

In conclusion, sample based music is definitely very cool, and some of the “sound” comes from modifying rendered audio. For my workflow, midi works best because I like having control of all the midi, and can write quickly like that. I do however occasionally sample myself. I’ll take rendered portions of my other songs and slice them up or slow them down for effects.