Archive for the ‘Tips’ Category

2 sounds 1 kit

I’m mixing my band‘s record. Most of our songs are pretty upbeat pop, but we have one that’s more relaxed with almost a country feel to it. I thought it would be cool to have a kind of 50s feel for the drums on that one, while the other tracks had a more processed, butt-moving vibe.

Obviously the best way to achieve this would be to tune and mic the drums in the 50s style. But in reality, we have a tiny budget; we recorded all the drums basically in one day with no time to adjust things in between songs. So I challenged myself to come up with two ways to mix the same drums and get very different sounds.

The first thing I did was listen to some reference tracks. Like this one:

Now that song was actually recorded in 1969, and in fact all my reference tracks actually came from the late 60s. Which is fine; I’m after a sound, not a date. At any rate, I took note of a few things:

  • The snare is thin and tight.
  • The kick has almost no boom, but you can really hear the pedal.
  • The hihats are nice and crisp. (In my head the sound was super warm, but that’s not really the case at all. It’s easy to overdo those things, so it was good to check.)

With that in mind I got to work.

I wasn’t alive then, but reading up a bit it seems like close-micing individual drums didn’t become common until the 70s. Basically you’d just throw one mic up in the middle of the room. With that in mind, I attempted to work entirely off the overheads. The first thing I noticed was the overheads were suuuper bright, probably because they were placed so close to the cymbals. Listen:


I thought a little multiband would help so I fired up Voxengo Drumformer. I set it in two-band mode with the cutoff at 3k. For the lows, I added a moderate amount of compression, but actually only a tiny bit on the highs. I set the cutoff just barely below where the hihat peaks. Mostly I just rolled the high band a lot lower. Even that wasn’t enough so I added a little bit of high shelf as well.

voxengo drumformer screenshot

Applying two-band compression to the overheads


Now the balance sounds pretty good and I’m liking the way the crash tails fade away. I wanted to add a touch of saturation to give it that retro feel. My favorite tool for this is the Buzz plugin Zu Tube Head, but since I’ve switched to Mac I need to find a new one. I first tried Magnetic from Nomad Factory; it sounded good, but I didn’t really want to drop $129 at the moment. I auditioned a few more before finding Forex from ToneBoosters. The sound is nice and it’s a bargain at under $35 for the whole bundle of plugs.


For the last step, I reasoned that recording with a single mic placed farther away, you’d pick up a bit more room, so I added just a hint of reverb to the whole thing. Naturally I used the amazing freebie Ambience by Magnus of Smartelectronix.


That’s it! The only further processing is to cut a hole for the vocals at 2.8k.

That’s my attempt at a 50s (but really 60s) drum sound. I’m still fiddling with the pop sound, but if I feel inspired I’ll write that up as well.

Quieting your studio PC on the cheap

So there is only one way to truly silence your studio: put everything with moving parts in a separate room and run a bunch of cables under the door.  Sadly, this is not practical for most of us.  A couple apartments ago, I actually had a setup like this, with my computer sitting in a hallway on the other side of a closed door.  It was blissfully quiet, but quite hazardous to cross the mess of cables when entering the room.  Since then I have not had the luxury of putting my gear in a room where I could close the door.

At any rate, if you don’t have another room to put your computer in, the next best thing is to make it quieter.  You can actually spend a ton of cash making your PC dead silent, but I recently got most of the way there for well under a hundred bucks.  The worst culprits are the things the move the most: the power supply (with its built-in cooling fan) and the CPU cooling fan.  Here’s what I got.

Nexus NX-3000 Real Silent PSU:  Well, “Real Silent” is a straight-up lie.  It’s very quiet, but 19 db(A) is not silent last I checked.  I still recommend it.  Some people might suggest that you need more than 300W from your PSU, but I don’t know if that applies to musical setups.  I run about a million USB-powered devices with no trouble.

Zalman CNPS9500 CPU fan: This is quite a monstrosity; the photos on the web site don’t really show how big it is.  Basically, the main way to make a quieter CPU cooler is to make the fan bigger and slower.  But of course a big slow fan doesn’t cool as well, so you need a bigger heat sink with lots of surface area to compensate.  This fan supports dynamic speed controls; in other words, the fan spins slowly at start and only increases in speed as needed.

In general, End PC Noise has a good selection of quiet computer parts.  I noticed that most web sites about customizing your PC are geared toward people who play video games, but musicians stand to gain just as much.

Helping your creativity flow

Waveformless share some nice tips on overcoming writer’s block.  I can personally vouch for one:

1.) Restrict Yourself
Back when my studio set-up consisted of nothing but a single sampler, I dreamt of the days when I would be able to afford more gear. Surely that would solve all my creative blocks! What I found out was just the opposite…. So impose some restrictions on yourself. Try making an entire song with nothing but a single synth. Make the drums and everything from scratch. Not only will you improve your sound programming abilities, but you’ll likely end up with a track that sounds utterly unlike anything else you’ve done.

Replace “single sampler” with “Impulse Tracker” and that story is eerily familiar.  Imposing limitations on yourself is a great way to prime your pump: puzzling over how to get around your restrictions gives your brain a starting point.

But another tip from Waveformless seemed to be directed at me personally:

5.) Be Productive
My motto in the studio is ‘always be working on something’.

Definitely an attitude I need to acquire.

I’ll throw in an extra tip of my own:

6.) Remove all barriers to productivity.

Keep your instruments out in the open, plugged in, tuned up, or what have you.  Make sure you can reach them easily.  If you use a computer, leave it on.  Even if it takes just ten seconds to get ready to play, try to knock that down to one.  It’s amazing how even the tiniest barriers to picking up your instruments can completely stymie your creativity.

How to keep the microKorg arpeggiator in sync

Last week Aaron and I were raving it up– he with his Doepfer, I with my microKorg.  We were frustrated, however, by our difficulty getting the microKorg to stay synced up.  After much investigation, I unearthed the cause and solution to our problem.

When the microKorg’s clock is set to EXT, it accepts MIDI clock from the master.  MIDI clock is a series of ticks sent at regular intervals.  The synth can calculate the master tempo from the time between ticks.  But MIDI clock contains no information about bars and beats.  (Other MIDI protocols do, but the microKorg does not accept them as far as I can tell.)  So the synth matches its tempo to the master, but it has no knowledge of how to line up the first beat with the master.  The arpeggiator might start on the beat just by chance, but it’s just as likely to start halfway between beats.

After much investigation, I discovered that you can force the microKorg to jump back to the first beat in time with your host.  Details after the jump.


Sidechain compression with Buzz, take 2

Kibibu helpfully pointed out that Fuzzpilz Oppressor is a much easier sidechain machine than BG Sidechain Dynamics. He is right, so here’s a revised tutorial. If you still want to use BG Sidechain, that tutorial is still available.

If you don’t have Oppressor 3, you need to get it from Fuzzpilz’s site. Our scenario is the same as last time: we have a kick drum and a bass line; we want the bass line volume to duck in time with the kick drum.


Beat slicing with UnwieldyTracker

There are a whole bunch of Buzz tracker machines, but Fuzzpilz UnwieldyTracker is so good I pretty much stopped using all the others. Its features are well-suited to beat slicing, among other things. Beat slicing involves chopping a drum loop into individual sounds and rearranging them to make a new beat. This tutorial will show you how.

We want to take a drum loop, fit it to our song tempo, re-arrange it to make a new beat, and apply different effects to different sounds. This example starts with a drum loop trimmed to 8 beats. If you don’t have one handy, you can use this one (right-click to save):

Example drum loop

UnwieldyTracker may not be included with your Buzz install. If not, go to Fuzzpilz site and install it first. Then we’re ready to go.


How to add outboard MIDI gear to a Buzz song

My tutorial on sidechaining last week got quite a few hits, so I thought I would write up some more Buzz techniques.

This tutorial will teach you how to integrate an external MIDI synthesizer (or drum machine, or groovebox ..) with a Buzz song. In this scenario, I have a drum loop playing in Buzz. I want to synchronize the arpeggiator on a hardware synth– say, my beloved microKorg– to Buzz so the synth plays in time with the drum pattern. Then I want to use my favorite Buzz effects on the synth.


How to do sidechaining in Buzz

This tutorial will teach you how to set up sidechain compression in Buzz using the BG Sidechain Dynamics machine. It took me forever to figure out how to do this the first time, so I wrote it up to save you the time. You’re welcome.

EDIT: Kibibu tipped me that Fuzzpilz Oppressor 3 also does sidechaining, and it’s a bit easier to set up.  Here’s this same tutorial using Oppressor instead of BG.

Here’s our initial setup. We have two tracks, a kick drum and a bass line. We want to duck the bass’s volume in time with the kick drum. (Click on any diagram to enlarge it.)