What Did I learn?
Overdrive – I had my default channel strip setup with Abelton’s Saturator but never really felt like I could get the sound I wanted so tried one I had seen Komonazmuk use in a Computer Music Masterclass. As soon as I cranked up the Air Windows Drive 2, I could hear it fill out and warm up each track I slapped it on so it has now replaced the saturator in my strip.
Placement – Something as simple as slight panning on hats and percussion can really give some width and clear room for things to hit straight down the centre such as the sub, kick and main snare layer. I tend to only nudge them to about 10-30 either side so they don’t get lost when summed to mono.
Slow Down For Recording – I’ve been really enjoying the hands on feel of my new controller keyboard, not only for the automation control but the ability to play in melodies and riffs. However, trying to record in a relatively complex pattern is really hard when working at 174 bpm, especially as I’m not a trained pianist. The simple solution I found was to drop the DAW global tempo to around 120 bpm, play in your melody, then whack the tempo back up.
Use Track Delay For Groove – By shifting the whole track back or forward a few milliseconds, you can give things an entirely different feel. I nudged my bass slightly back to avoid it hitting at exactly the same time as the kick but also because it just felt good there. This is an alternative to the Groove Pool which can get quite complex and is great to use on non-percussive elements.
Layering – Sometimes, saturation and overdrive aren’t enough to fill out the sound as there may be certain frequencies lacking. By layering a sound which has the desired frequencies you get the best of both worlds. Initially, the kick was just one sample but was getting lost when played in context. By adding a higher ‘click’ layer, it was able to poke out a bit more.
Bass also benefits from this technique, for example in this tune, there is a mono’d sub layer (Low passed around 130Hz), a mid layer that has a slight chorus on to give it some width (High passed around 2-300) and then a final top layer which has width, distortion a dash of reverb (High passed to sit on top of the mid). The crossover frequencies aren’t set in stone, just adjust until it sits well.
Try 3rd Party Plug-ins – When I first switched to Ableton from Logic around early 2013, I decided to stick to using the native plug-ins. I wanted to master the techniques before I worried about sonic characteristics and I wanted to keep the strain on my CPU as low as possible.
After over a year, I feel I have a basic understanding of what each one does and have been trying out freeware alternatives. Some I deleted after a few hours, but others have stayed in the arsenal. Recently, I switched to the Drive 2 overdrive as mentioned above and started to use the Blue Cat Chorus set up on a send to give things width.
There really are some great sounding plug-ins around that don’t cost a penny. Resound has done a superb list of The 25 Best Free VST / AU Plugins for PC and Mac if you are unsure where to start looking. A great site to subscribe to if you haven’t already.
Sketch Out Track – Drawing out your rough arrangement of 16s and filter movements (on breaks and builds) will give you a visual aid of how you envision your final track to look / sound like. As I was playing around in session view, I jotted some ideas down so when I got round to arrangement, I had the ideas ready to execute. I remember seeing Goldie using this as a tool once and can definitely see the benefits of having a reference point.
Balance Push & Pull – I recently bought an eBook on Tension & Energy in Electronic Dance Music and I must say, it was well worth the £9 investment. It explains the concepts behind tension and release (or the push and the pull). I learnt you need to make sure arrangement energy, tension & release is balanced either side of the drop. Try to avoid having a massive drop preceded by a lame build up and vice versa. Ironically, after reading this I decided to deliberately do the opposite of this advice although I guess this adds to the tension and expectation. Rules are there to be broken.
I also recommend subscribing to the EDMprod site as it is full of valuable pointers and even though it is centered around a different genre, the advice is still transferable.
Give Transitions ‘Breathing Space’ – Rather than have parts continue right up until the end of the 16 bars try to fade / filter out, pull them back or give them a tail so they don’t end abruptly. I find this mainly applies to musical parts but can also be used for drums and FX. Removing some low end or aiming for a short silence of a bar or measure before the drop will also help break things up a little.
Mix As You Go – Up until now, I’ve been saving all mixing until the final session but now I’m more confident what I need to do with each track, I’ve started doing it as I go along. Swift adjustments such as panning, overdrive, EQ, controlling the width, compression and limiting (all done on my default channel strip to save loading each one in every time) can be done in a few seconds and then revisited at a later session if needed. As well as being quicker, it gives you a better idea of what the finished article will sound like.
What Do I need To Work On?
Buildups & Tension – My transitions are improving with each completed track, but I still feel I could do more with my build-ups and breakdowns. I’ll spend some time playing around with pitched risers and similar sounds as it’s something I have avoided using up until now. Although I have a stash of samples, I feel learning to synthesize them will give me more control.
Goggin1 can be purchased at the Diffrent Bandcamp.