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Digging deeper: examining good music to discover techniques

Cheesy stock imageHere at emusictips, I’m always on the lookout for fresh new electronic sounds. Artists such as Shulman, Bluetech (Evan Bartholomew), Kilowatts, Pitch Black, and Shen have piqued my interest because of the technical mastery evident in their sound. Here’s a short list of the things I think make their music great:

Conscious use of space: just like any good graphic designer will tell you, space is important. In design, space comes in the form of white space, which is one of the most important elements in creating aesthetic compositions. The same thing applies for music. Allow your listeners to breathe, so to speak. You give them space and they will appreciate it.

Conscious use of effects: One of my favorite things to add to any synth is a series of effects and processors that polish the sound and make it pop out of the track. Delays are great for filling in empty space that you’ve created between elements in the track. Try adding a 3/16th delay to any sound and then adjust the feedback to your liking. This will create a sound that repeats every third sixteenth note, and will gradually fade out. But do not overdo it! If you have a lot of feedback, only play a note every so often so that you can still retain that space that is so important. Also, if you’re going to add effects such as phasers, flangers, distortion, etc., make sure that not all of the instruments in your track are layered with these kinds of effects. The purpose should be to make a particular sound stand out from the rest to create contrast.

Automation: To keep me interested as a listener, you need to develop movement in your song. Movement requires changes along time. The best way to achieve this is to automate knobs and sliders in your software sequencer. When you’re tweaking knobs on a synth or sampler and you find that turning a certain knob sounds cool, hit record and then record those knob movements in real time. Go back over the song and repeat the process as necessary to create a multi-faceted track with lots of movement.

So, let’s take a look at a good track to demonstrate these ideas:

Shen – Main Springs

Shen - Main Springs Waveform Display
[audio:shen-main_springs_clip.mp3]

Notice how the waveform of this audio clip has lots of peaks and valleys. This is how you can tell that there is space between all of the elements. Each element in the track has gaps between hits, which allows the listener to fully appreciate the timbre of each layer of sound. The bass, gated synths, and percussion all are interspersed with blank space. Now let’s deconstruct this song clip to find out what makes it sound like it does:

  1. All percussion elements have short decays so they sound snappy. You can achieve this sound in any program by reducing the attack, sustain and release to zero on the envelope of all drum sounds. Then set the decay to something very short. Experiment with the decay value and notice how you can turn open drum sounds into snappy, short drum sounds. Short decays give the track space because there is silence inbetween all of the percussion elements
  2. Everything is micro-edited. Each layer is filled with all sorts of 1/64th note edits. This is actually pretty easy to accomplish in any software sequencer. Just set the grid of your sequencer to 1/64th and start drawing a series of many 1/64th notes in a row and then making their velocities ascend or descend. Or open up your volume automation track on any synth and draw alternating low and high bars when you are snapped to the grid. It takes patience to create outstanding microedits. You need to loop a section over and over while adjusting it in real-time so that you can see and hear what you’re doing. It may take a long time to create just a few bars, but the end result is worth it. Once you have created a nice beat or automation track, you can copy and paste it and make minor modifications to each copy. This will help reduce the amount of time you will have to spend on detailed tiny edits.
  3. Contrast is created between short sounds and long sounds. Listen closely and you will hear a synth with a short attack and a long decay, it begins right when the first kick drum hits. This long decay and sparse melody (there are only 5 notes in this clip) sit nicely on top of the 64th notes. It is pleasant to listen to stacked layers of sound when they contrast in rhythmic scale (from 64th notes to whole notes) as well as in the amplitude envelope (short decay vs. long decay)
  4. Shulman – OMG

    Shulman - OMG Waveform Display
    [audio:shulman-omg.mp3]

    1. The first sound we hear is a thick pad, a lush sound with a long attack and release. Next, a stab-like synth jumps out at us. It’s difficult to say exactly how this was made, but you can tell that the filter on it has been automated so that there is a ‘filter sweep’ sound to it. Filter sweeps on the synths help bring them to life. To achieve this, edit the volume automation and use a pencil or line tool to create sweeps. Draw mountains and valleys on the filter cutoff automation track. Then add a little resonance to the filter to emphasize the cutoff. Additionally, this synth has a tape delay with a long feedback time, and with a Low-Pass filter (LP) on it. Notice how there is a large contrast between the original sound and the delayed signal that has been toned down with the filter. This creates contrast between the dry and the wet signal
    2. Next we have a very synthetic pluck synth. It sounds like it was created with physical modeling, which actually emulates the physics of a string. I’m betting that this was a preset from Carbon 2, a synth available in Native Instrument’s Reaktor. There is a nice reverb and grain delay on it that gives it a sense of space while also chopping up the that pluck into granules and varying their spacing.
    3. Next we have a nice cymbal buildup that leads into a beat and a bassline. This cymbal effect can be created by taking a sample of any sort of crash cymbal and reversing it. Then when it’s imported into your sequencer, the end of the sample (the loudest part) should be aligned directly or just shy of the beginning of the beat. In this particular track, it’s more of a crescendo and decrescendo rather than a crescendo and a dropoff. Reversing samples is a great technique for introducing new passages. Try reversing any sort of “hit” type of sound and it will give you a good reverse hit.
    4. Other than good mastering and mixing, there are a few things that make the drums and bass sound really good in this track. First is the odd time signature if anybody here can figure it out, leave a comment and I’ll give you a cookie. Second, that filtered pad in the background swells in and out with a long attack and release on the amplitude envelope. This filter leaves plenty of space for the drums and bass, as well as the percussion. It is rich and warm sounding because many oscillators were combined and then the high frequencies were faded out with the filter.
    5. Notice how the bassline is a simple alternation between two notes, and each pluck of the bassline has a long release time. This drives the song along with the drums, but it’s not complicated or in-your-face.

    Well, that’s it for now. I hope this post has inspired you to listen to your favorite music and pick it apart until you can figure out how they did it! This will not only increase your production skills, but also inspire you to come up with your own techniques as well. And please feel free to share any of your own tips through the comment area.