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Video Tutorial: Subtractive Synthesis Explained

September 14, 2012 by Daniel Rothmann

This video tutorial is related to an article I wrote here a few years ago. It’s a brief explanation of the principles and schematics of the most common synthesis method: Subtractive. Oh yeah, it’s time to learn!

Learn How To Mix In 3D: Steve Hillier Tips on Mastering Reverb

November 21, 2011 by admin

Master the use of reverb and your lifeless, two-dimensional mix will become a three dimensional panorama, says Steve Hillier.

Things that people do wrong with their music:

1. Write a composition starting with the drums. This is madness. Can you imagine Lennon and McCartney waiting for Ringo to set up his drum kit before writing their next Beatles smash? Obviously not.

2. Compress everything. At least twice. Anyone doing this in their mixes should stop now. Modern DAWs have an internal dynamic range that’s comparable to a pin dropping versus the sound of the big bang. Try using it, rather than squashing your music to the flatness of a pancake being sucked into a black hole . Compressors are like guns…only the sane should ever pick one up.

3. Use reverb badly, or not at all…

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Emulate The Classic Roland TB303 Using Logic’s ES1 Softsynth

September 20, 2011 by admin

Hands up who likes analogue synthesisers?! Of course you do; there’s dozen of models out there and the best thing is, they’re all different. That might seem strange at first glance because when you examine them, most models appear to be basically the same.

My Roland SH101 has one oscillator, one filter, one envelope generator and plays only one note at a time. Put that next to my Yamaha CS10, which is nearly exactly the same in terms of sound making facilities, and everyone except a guitarist would tell you they’re different, as different as a grand piano and a Yamaha DX7 (and the SH101 sounds far better in my opinion). And as every synth sounds different, each is unique. Which brings us to a tiny silver box manufactured in 1982. It’s the antique synth that inspired every dance music genre since Acid House:

The Roland TB303 Bassline. On paper it looks extremely limited. It has one oscillator, one envelope generator, one filter and a tiny keyboard that’s next to impossible to program. And yet, this synth sounds like no other. It’s weedy, shrill and despite it’s ‘bassline’ tag the thing it does worst is basslines. How ironic! TB303 are very rare and very expensive these days, and quite frankly you’d be better off spending £1200 on a decent set of monitors. To save you some money I’m going to show you how you can make Logic’s ES1 software instrument do a close imitation. And if you don’t have Logic, don’t worry, because these steps will work on just about any softsynth.

The basics

1. Load in the ES1 and set the oscillator to ‘sawtooth’. Set the oscillator mix so you have only the main oscillator, not the the subsoscillator. The TB303 has no suboscillator and only a dial between sawtooth and ‘square’; you can switch the oscillator to square if you prefer.
2. Set the oscillator range to 16’.
3. Make sure the ES1 ‘Voices’ setting is in ‘Legato mode’ and with ‘Glide’ set to around a 1/3 of the way up.

This setting is extremely important; we must not have notes overlapping and creating chords. We need the ability to slide between specific notes too!

4. Set the ADSR to very fast attack (but not instant, just slightly off will suffice). Set sustain to zero. Set the release and decay to two thirds of the way up.
5. Set the amp to ‘Gate R’ and the ‘level via vel’ triangles to one at the top and the other 2/3 up.
6. Set the filter to 12dB (the TB303 actually has an 18dB filter but the ES1’s filter sounds far more realistic at this setting) and the ADSR via vel triangles at zero and 2o’clock. Drive should be at zero, and ‘Key’ at half way.
7. Set ‘Analog’ to 100%
8. Set both modulation faders to zero. There’s no modulation other than ADSR on a TB303!

So, with your synthesiser set up in this way, you should have an approximation of a TB303 coming out of your speakers. That’s only half of the battle: to really get that acid feel you need to play the ES1 like a TB303 too. Which actually means that you mustn’t play it but manually program in a pattern in the style of a Roland sequencer from the early 1980s.

The Pattern

1. Create a one bar region in the arrange area using the pencil mouse tool (esc > No.2)
2. Open that in the piano roll editor and draw in the notes you want to play using the pencil tool. Note that the default length on velocity setting is ideal for us because the note is one 16th note long and the velocity is 80. Remember, no chords!

Here’s where things get really clever. At the moment, you’ll probably have a string of notes, each clearly firing one after the other. The TB303 can do that, but the best patterns use glides, legato and accents to create that classic Acid House feel.

1. Drag the right hand corner of the note that you want to ‘slur’ into the next one to the right so that it overlaps with the next note. This will do two things: it will stop the envelope generator triggering again and it will make the ES1 sweep to the new note’s pitch. Nice!
2. The finishing touch is to add accents. You do this with the velocity mouse tool (esc > No.9). At the moment, all your notes will be at velocity 80. Click-drag up on the note you want to have an accent until the velocity is at, say, 100. That note will not only be louder but it will also be slightly brighter too, just like in the old days.

The finishing touches

Of course, it’s how you adjust the settings on the synth that makes that TB303 ‘performance’. The best ones to play with are the Decay/Release settings on the ADSR, Filter Cutoff, the Filter Resonance and the degree of Filter Modulation (move the fader by clicking between the two triangles). If you want to emulate the changing of the ‘accent’ setting, try moving the top filter triangle up and down. Also, you can adjust the attack setting on the ADSR; moving it up to just under a quarter of the way will give you an accurate ‘filter lag’ sound. The key here is subtlety. The real TB303 connoisseur can also add a touch more resonance on every accented note; this is most easily drawn in with automation.

Clean TB303 sounds went out of fashion in the 80s. Try these effects to dirty up your fake TB303:

1. Bitcrusher. But don’t use it to down-sample the audio. Instead, just adjust the drive setting. This will give you that classic ‘abused preamp on a cheap mixing desk’ grit.
2. Ensemble. This can help a pattern come alive, and adds a nice movement to the sound.
3. Tape delay. Throwing a dash of this into your mix can give the ES1 pattern an extra bounce and sound great with those shrill filter sweeps.


To learn how to produce the classic Roland TB303 sound using Ableton Live, check out this tutorial from fellow Point Blank tutor, Danny J Lewis.

Steve Hillier teaches Music Business at the London College and Logic Music Production Online.
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Colouring Tracks in Logic – ‘More Than Just Pretty’

May 20, 2010 by Happy Bunny // Poison Peanut

Colour-coding your tracks can be an extremely useful tool when it comes to mixing. It enables you to quickly acknowledge what you’re listening to and jump to it without hesitation. This can be particularly helpful when you’re attempting to glue together 15 or more tracks. Now, you’re probably thinking that colouring tracks isn’t very ground-breaking when it comes to mixing techniques? Possibly. But Logic has deeper functionality that enables you to take track colouring further. Read on…

  1. Take 3 separate groups of tracks. For this example, I’m going to use Drums, Guitars and Vocals.

  2. Open up the Colour Palette <OPTION C>

  3. Colour the Drums BLUE

    Colour the Vocals RED

    Colour the Guitars GREEN

  4. It starts to get interesting now…

    Select just ONE region of the Vocals (The one that is selected is partially black)

  5. Now hit <SHIFT C>

    As you will notice, all of the Vocal tracks are selected in one go. You’ve just used the ‘Select Equal Colours’ command.

  6. This can be a very powerful tool. With groups of tracks selected at once, you can instantly take control over the arrange page and speed up your work flow.

    Hit ‘S’ and everything in the group is soloed

    Hit ‘M’ and (you guessed it) they’re all muted.

    All of this came simply from selecting one region after colouring. It works in piano roll too.

  7. So, as you can see, colouring tracks isn’t just to make your session look pretty – although it does that too – but it aids with your visual recognition of tracks and, more importantly, allows you to take more control.

Get colouring!

Easy Guide: Synth programming & Preset tweaking

November 2, 2009 by Daniel Rothmann

The glorious Korg MS-20

By Daniel Rothmann


So, you’ve made it this far. If you’ve read my previous articles in the EGE series you should have a pretty good overview of how electronic music actually works. In addition, you should also be able to put together some pretty cool beats for your tracks! So, what’s missing? You guessed it: Synthesizers. Electronic music is all about synthesizers. You may be wondering how the heck these things work, right? I can understand that many people are intrigued by synthesizers; all those knobs and buttons can certainly seem very confusing! In this article, I’m going to give you a basic overview of how the common synthesizer works and what important parameters you need to know of in order to produce the sounds you want. Read the rest of this entry

Easy Guide: Programming beats in Ableton Live

April 23, 2009 by Daniel Rothmann

Programming beats in Live doesn’t have to be difficult

By Daniel Rothmann (T7)


So you’re new to electronic music production. You don’t know much about it all, but that’s OK, everyone has been at this point of experience. I figured the best way to start this series out would be explaining basic drum programming. While many may know very little (if any) theory on the subject, drum programming is quite a bit easier accessible than chords and harmony, since it doesn’t require direct acquaintance with music theory. Even for the inexperienced ear, you can usually tell if a rhythm just isn’t right, or sounds strange in some way. During this tutorial we’re going to set you up with the basic tools you need to get grooving. First, let me introduce you to the software.

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Top 10 Reverb Tips and Tricks

March 31, 2009 by bjorgvin

With reverb, you can make or break a space

Imagine listening to a recording and half a minute into a song you notice something wrong. You can’t quite put your finger on it; you just can’t feel the instruments, you feel attacked by the singer’s in-your-face voice and everything is just too…..dry. It’s like listening to music in a vacuum. There’s no space.

Although listening to a reverb-free record is nearly impossible, (unless it was recorded entirely in an anechoic chamber), you can still have a really dry record if you don’t put any reverb on anything.

Reverb can be perceived as a glue that holds everything together, yet retains enough space to maintain a perceived distance between each element. It makes a three dimensional picture of the soundscape you just recorded, causing you to feel that you can hear the room accompanied by the instrument.

Different modes of reverb

There are quite a few different types of reverb. You can call them reverb modes, or room types. Some of the more common types include; Room, Hall, Chamber, Spring, Plate, and Convolution. In our age, we have access to digital reverb simulators which can simulate, quite realistically, all of these programmed room or reverb modes. Let’s take a look.

  • Room reverb – These types simulate the sound of having recorded something in a room. Whether the parameters are for a big room or a drum room, they usually simulate smaller spaces than their Hall/Chamber counterparts.
  • Hall reverb – Rich, warm and big are the first adjectives that come to mind when thinking about Hall reverb. These types simulate halls, whether they be medium halls, concert halls, or whatever lush parameter name the hall has.
  • Plate reverb – Plate reverb is a personal favorite of mine for vocals. Live, I propably use it too much, but I just think it does wonder to the vocals, without taking it too far or drowning it in reverb. Plate reverb is basically sound being sent to a metal plate which vibrates back and forth. These vibrations are picked up and transformed into an audio signal. Plate reverbs are very bright but clean, so they suit vocals especially.
  • Spring reverb – I was once asked what reverb was when I was fooling around with my guitar. I cranked up the reverb on my small practice amp and then kicked it. “That boing you heard?” “Yeah?” “That’s reverb”. Although true is some form, that boing wasn’t all reverb, it was spring reverb. The reverb found on guitar amps so most usually used for guitar.
  • Chamber reverb – In the old days, studios had so called echo chambers. In these chambers they had speakers that they routed the audio signal that they wanted to put reverb on. The signal, be it guitar, voice or whatever was produced through the speakers into the chamber and picked up by a microphone that was positioned to capture the reverb in said chambers.
  • Convolution reverb – This is the type of reverb that allows digital emulation of real three-dimensional spaces. If you’re familiar with the famous reverb plugin Altiverb, then you have heard convolution reverb. In order to capture a room’s reverb characteristics, an “impulse” sound is played in a real space, such as an opera house or a cathedral, then recorded into a computer. The impulse sound allows the computer to simulate that space just from the impulse sound. This is possibly the best kind of digital reverb around

So now you know a little bit about the reverb modes you most commonly work with. Below I have brainstormed a few fun tips you can use whenever you like to spice things up.

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Creativity in the Control Room

March 23, 2009 by bjorgvin

by Björgvin Benediktsson

Where the magic happens

From an idea to the finished product, a song or an album goes through many stages. A little ditty in the songwriters head, a rocking riff on the Les Paul or a quiet chord progression on the piano transforms exponentially as more thought and work is put into it.

All of this isn’t done by only the songwriter. There are a lot of people behind the scenes, helping with the process, from A&R scouts to mixers, to engineers, to producers. But how much of the band is left on that CD after it’s been filtered through all those people? How much does a producer change the creative vision the band had?

Do the engineers and producers help or hinder creativity?

There are three primary roles in the recording studio. The artist, the producer and the engineer. All of them play a pivotal role in the production of an album. Sometimes these roles mix together and sometimes they clash. Other times one person performs the role of all three. Let’s take a look at what goes on in each of these roles:

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What does pro audio have to do with chess?

March 18, 2009 by bjorgvin

Pro audio is like a game of chess; the best player always plans ahead

“Planning ahead pushes you toward victory” – Sun Tzu

In the life of a sound-tech, you’ve got your mixers, your cables and your mics. You’ve got your patching, plugging and playing to do and if I told you it’s a lot like chess you’d probably just point a microphone in my face and say “Does this look like a Rook to you?”.

In chess you have to be able to think more than one move at a time. It’s a game of cunning strategy and if you don’t think one step ahead of your opponent he will Sun Tzu you and you will lose the game. Working with audio is similar. You have to think ahead and keep everything in mind. Signal flow doesn’t start and end with you plugging in a cable, or adjusting the gain levels.

You have to think things through right to the end or feedback will win the game and taint your reputation. As Sun Tzu said: “Estimating completely creates victory”.

Thinking ahead and keeping all the factors in mind greatly reduces the “troubleshooting brainstorm” that goes on when something doesn’t work.

It also enhances you ability to think quickly on your feet, getting the show or the recording back on track in no time.

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Acoustics Part I: an Introduction to Resonance

March 16, 2009 by admin

Galileo GalileiGalileo discovered the principles of resonance when experimenting with pendulums

Way back in the old days of the 17th century, a man named Galileo Galilei was fiddling around with a pendulum and discovered that if he gave the weight at the end of the string a tiny push at the right time, it would keep swaying back and forth with minimal energy exertion. He discovered that potential and kinetic energy can be set into motion with just a tiny bit of effort. This phenomenon is what became known as resonance. As it turns out, it’s not just pendulums that resonance is affecting. It’s everything. You could say that everything resonates. This affects us musicians and producers in many ways. For example, your room may have too many resonances in the wrong places, which will mess up audio recordings unless you dampen the sound vibrations with sound paneling or bass traps. But since this an intro, I’m sort of getting ahead of myself, and I will cover the practical side of resonance in Part 2.

Nikola Tesla was the archetype of a mad scientist. He invented alternating current, radio broadcasting, and of course, the tesla coil. He is also the subject of many conspiracy theories.

Several centuries later, another guy named Nikola Tesla had heard of this resonance principal, and dedicated his life to discovering how it could be used. Tesla confirmed that everything resonates when he discovered that a pocket-sized mechanical oscillator can cause buildings to crumble and bridges to tremor through the principles of resonance. All that was needed was a pocket-sized piston-driven oscillator sending tuned vibrations into the steel foundations of a building. The power of resonance lies in its ability to multiply force; Just a little bit input energy results in a lot of output energy.

“Although Tesla was not the first to discover resonance he was obsessed with it and created some of the most incredible demonstrations of it ever seen. He studied both mechanical and electrical versions. In the process he created an artificial earthquake, numerous artificial lightning storms, knocked an entire power plant off line in Colorado, and nearly caused the steel frame of a sky scraper under construction in Manhattan to collapse. Tesla realized that the principles of resonance could be used to transmit and receive radio messages well before Marconi.” link

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