I started out writing music by scribbling on manuscript paper. The staves were there, but no notes or clefs; those were scrawled in #2 pencil after I jammed out the outline of a song. Of course, this was before I had any synthesizers or a computer. I wrote all my music at the piano, note by note. I always wanted a way to scribe and edit music faster, and that desire along with my love of electronic, synthesized sounds destined me for computer-based writing and recording.
Around the time I was using a Korg M-1 to write music, an unfortunate event happened. I had all my hand-written music in a folder in the back seat of my friend’s car along with some CDs and clothes. We left for a few hours to go to an event, and when we came back everything was gone. All the music, and all those countless hours of work with paper and pencil simply disappeared. They were my only copies.
After losing all my hard work in one fell swoop, I essentially never went back to writing music by hand. I had moved on to writing everything on the Korg M-1, but I still didn’t have a computer. So that meant whenever the Korg’s memory was full, I had to erase something already stored there to make room for something new. Eventually I bought an extremely cheap Brother sequencer that had a 3.5″ disk drive. This allowed me to save all my data from the M-1, erase, and start over without permanently losing anything. While the Brother unit was technically a sequencer, after trying to write music on it I swiftly decided it was better as a disk librarian. Somehow, I think even the old Roland MC-4s and digital control voltage sequencers would have been better than that crappy sequencer from the typewriter company.
Inevitable Progression to the Computer
Later in high school, my friend Wes had an Atari ST computer which had built-in MIDI. I don’t remember what program we used to sequence on that thing. But it was cheap, and it worked. Some of our best compositions were written on that Atari, sequencing our Emu samplers and Roland synths. We sampled everything in those days, including movies and our own other synths. That was basically the only way we would get the rich, full sound of multiple sound sources since we only had a few synthesizers and drum machines to work with.
My first non-toy computer was the Apple //c, but unfortunately its cool, sleek design eliminated the expansion board buss. So that meant that even though there were MIDI interfaces and sequencing programs out in the market, I had to wait. The real breakthrough in my process happened once I had a PC clone running Windows 3.1. I managed to scrape enough money together to buy a Mark of the Unicorn MIDI Express, which was a 1-unit rackmount device with 6 ports of MIDI input and output. Using that and a cracked copy (yes, I will admit it) of Steinberg Cubase, I was finally in full control of my compositions in the computer. Cubase was MIDI-only at the time, so all my music was written on MIDI tracks in Cubase, which sequenced my entire studio.
In the early to mid 1990s, I had the computer and MIDI interface for writing and sequencing, the Emu Emulator II which did most of the work in my studio (even with only 8 voices!), my old Roland Juno-60, and a Roland TR-707 for drums. The next pieces to arrive were the TR-808 and a Korg Wavestation SR. I didn’t really have any effects processing then, and the old Mackie CR-1604 mixer mixed everything down to stereo. This setup was modest, but I learned a lot about workflow and digital composition using this configuration.
My process remained essentially the same from those days in the 1990s through the early 2000s. I began working closely with my friend Mike on a variety of projects, and we both recorded the same way. We would use the computer as a composition tool, record our takes onto DAT in stereo, and at that point the song was done. In all honesty, I think Mike was more of a jammer than I was, so perhaps the computer’s influence was more my style. I loved how I could sequence pretty much anything and have full control over the song’s arrangement.
The Next Step: Digital Audio Workstations
As great as sequencing entire compositions using MIDI was, that process also had its drawbacks. I began performing my music more, and a lot of the sounds I conjured in the studio were lost forever when the patches and memories of the synths forgot them. Many of the best sounds were happy accidents, which meant that I couldn’t retrieve them even if I wanted. Sometimes I would also want to go back and fix certain parts of the mix after the stereo recording was done, but I didn’t have the tracks anymore.
I started using multitrack audio in earnest around the time I was composing the music for my first album. Cubase had the ability to record and play back multitrack audio probably in the late 1990s, but I never got around to using it deeply until 2000 or so. ProTools had been around for a while by then, but all of a sudden it was possible for inexpensive computers to do the same work custom DSP chips did in Digidesign’s hardware and the prices really came down.
Around the same time, virtual instruments began to gain momentum. I think the first virtual instrument (or VSTi) I used was an emulation of the old PPG Wave 2.3 published by Waldorf, the Wave 2.v. I had an actual PPG Wave 2.3 by then, so it was fun to compare and contrast the quality of the real thing against the virtual version. The verdict? The virtual version sounded pretty good: not quite as present as the hardware PPG, but close enough. Plus, it cost about 10% of what a real PPG would.
Going Too Far
I spent a lot of time collecting VST instruments, samples, and software. I did this so much that I found I was spending more time managing software than actually making music. At this point I decided to actually buy the software I used for making music and use only what I had legitimate licenses to use. Part of this decision was motivated by wanting to reduce mental clutter, but part of it was also motivated by the fact that I realized I made my own living writing and developing software. It felt hypocritical for me not to buy the software I used, especially as plans for my first solo album solidified.
While reducing software clutter, I also decided that since I had a decent collection of hardware that I should use it instead of move too much to the computer. Pointing and clicking on knobs was too far abstracted from the tactile feel of the hardware. So as I gradually scaled back my use of virtual instruments, I finally landed on my main workflow for writing and recording music today. I had gone too far into the computer, and now it was time to strike a balance.
Each recording and projet is a little different, so there is not one simple formula I use again and again. But the tools and techniques I use have congealed into a cohesive process for me. Here’s how it works.
I typically start by playing around with synths or drums. Occasionally I will have an idea in mind before I get started, but not always. For example, when producing a remix of another track I will strip down everything except the vocals to start working with the main structure of the song. But most of the time, I just start playing.
All the audio in the studio comes in to the digital mixer, and the digital mixer has a direct connection over Firewire to the computer. And all the control routings in the studio either originate with the computer or can be recorded and sequenced by the computer. For those synthesizers with MIDI, I use a big MIDI patchbay to manage their connections to other devices and to the computer. For those pieces that are control voltage only, I use a Kenton Pro-4 MIDI to CV converter as well as a MIDI/CV sequencer from Doepfer called the MAQ 16/3. Additional control voltage lines can be sequenced from the computer using the MOTU Volta instrument, which connects to the rest of the studio via a MOTU 828 Firewire 8×8 interface. The last bit of kit that is neither control voltage nor MIDI is a pair of drum machines, the TR-606 and TR-808. These are synchronized with the rest of the studio using an old Korg KMS-30 MIDI to Sync24 converter.
Whenever I get an idea going that I want to build upon, I fire up the computer to play it for me. With synths, I’ll play in what I want to record to the computer and build from there. Sometimes, when I want modulation on the filter of a part, I’ll come back later after the track is laid out and use a knob controller like the Akai MPD-8 to sequence control voltage lines that are patched to the synth I want.
Drums are a little different. With the drum machines, I usually build layers of 2, 4, or 8-measure patterns together on the machines I’m using. That usually includes the 808, but lately I have also been using the TR-707 again and the MPC1000 for extra punch. I don’t have enough inputs on the mixer to patch all the drum channels in at once, so when I’m sketching I will submix these and bring them in on a stereo pair.
Honing the Track
The next step after building up the layers of the song and defining the rough structure is to capture the audio as individual tracks in the computer. With synths, vocals, and effects this is pretty easy. I just hit record enable on the inputs I want from the mixer, and let the virtual tape roll. The computer records each enabled part as an audio track, so I can either switch off the synthesizer (some of them get pretty hot) or just let it sit while the computer plays back the audio. The digital mixer I use has the concept of record versus playback channels, so whenever the audio is recorded I toggle this mode on the channel to switch the input from analog to the computer. Recording this way is great, because tracking parts in can be done quickly, and I don’t have to worry about the mix being different if the computer outputs were to go to another channel on the mixer.
Tracking in drum parts is a little different than synths because they are usually mixed together. For this, I’ll record each drum part on its own or sometimes in layers of two. Once all this is done, I can then distribute the drums to their own channels, busses, and effects routings if I want or mix them down in the computer to just a few channels. I like to record changes on the drum machines live too, like mixing in or out sounds using the individual part volumes on the Rolands or muting and soloing tracks on the MPC. Bringing a variety of patterns in makes it easy for me to mark them and cut them in the computer if I make arrangement changes later.
Once all the parts are in, I typically tweak the arrangement and create the final mix. At this point, all the audio is being played back by the computer to the mixer. Sometimes I’ll use some processing on channels in the computer before they come to the mixer, like EQ or compression on vocals. All the effect sends are controlled by the mixer at this point as well. Sometimes if I want to modulate pan or a send during the mix I will automate this in the mixer, but I don’t really do that very much. I roll the sequencer and record the output from the mixer directly back into the sequencer, and then that’s it! I have the raw mix.
Denouement: Finalizing and Archiving
Finishing up is a matter of saving patches on the effects units and mixer so I can come back to the mix if I need to. I’ll export the mix audio to a file on the disk in the best quality I can, usually at 48kHz and 24bits. Then, I pull the track into Wavelab or Cubase for mastering. I give my tracks a little extra pop by smoothing the EQ out, giving the bass a nudge and adding a little more sizzle in the highs. Then, I run that through a mastering compressor and limiter to squeeze a little more loudness out of the track without going overboard. The final step is to export this processed audio as WAV, then MP3, and that’s it!
Coda: Goodbye Cubase, Hello Ableton
After all these years using Cubase, I think I am finally ready to let go of it. Around the time Ableton Live version 3 came out, I made an investment in it for my live sets. Now that they’re at version 8.2, Live is now a very powerful, full-featured tool for composition, DJing, and performing Live. My fingers still know Cubase, but after getting to know Live a lot better, I don’t really use Cubase anymore. The king is dead; long live the king!Posted: November 27th, 2010 | Tags: recording, studio | 1 Comment »