Category Archives: midi controllers

SONGWRITING: Backing Track Preparation & Options

Been getting more and more into this, lately, as every band I’m in is a duo of some sort. And I’m beginning to play live with each project… especially in the next few months.

Options:
Boss RC-300
Boss RC-505
Roland SP-404SX
Roland SPD-SX
EHX 45000 with footpedal
laptop running Reaper 5, with footpedal or Launchpad
Akai MPC Live
Elektron Octatrack

Each of these options ranges from $400 (laptop+controller) all the way to $1200 for the Akai and Elektron. A bit overkill, many may say.

Leaning toward the RC-300. It can store 3 hours of WAV files internally, and you can easily export from your DAW, to the pedal. Has 100 presets. About 15-20 of them could each store a full song, spread across 3 WAV files (drums, bass, keyboard parts, or extra guitars). That’s about 120 to 150MB per song. I think the total storage is about 2GB, in the pedal. It can also read from SD memory, which is great. Plus, it’s just a killer looper in general. Lots of fun and many uses… not just for a foot-controlled backing track player.

Cons, that pulled me away from all the rest:
Boss RC-505 – no foot use… just hands. Awesome little pedal, but I play guitar a lot, and/or drums or keys live… this wouldn’t be ideal. Great for vocalists and beatboxers, though.
Roland SP-404SX – decent, and used by a lot of pros. I could live without those unbalanced RCA outputs, though (are you kidding, Roland? In 2017?) Can store 120 samples per SD card (and reads FAST– loads everything quickly upon startup)… each sample can be LONG, from what I understand)… but again… the outputs?!
Roland SPD-SX – can only be used with drumsticks, basically. Nice bit of gear… 4GB of ram. Can store a ton and has a lot of fun options. But… you’re stuck holding sticks. However, Jack Garratt kicks ass with his, while playing 100 other things (see below)
EHX 45000 with footpedal – read that it’s prone to errors and bugs. Nice design, though.
laptop running Reaper 5, with footpedal or Launchpad – everyone’s usually against the use of a laptop, live… but certainly, this is the cheapest option. The con is it takes a lot of configuring, to do what you want it to (such as with Reaper 5, and a MIDI footpedal).
Akai MPC Live – too expensive, and the hardware OS/software is still “in beta”… and a LOT of crashes/bugs. For $1200? No thanks. Fix your bugs entirely, and we’ll talk.
Elektron Octatrack – Same price as above…. much-loved. I don’t know much about it, but it is powerful as hell. Doesn’t seem to offer a lot of sample storage, though.

PREPARING TRACKS
What I did in Beauty’s Confusion (please follow us on Spotify!) over 10 years ago is the basic way most people do it:
click-track panned hard left
music mixed in mono, hard right
(if you want, you can put music at a lower volume, along with the click, so you don’t just get bombarded with a click in your ear while you play).

I used to use a shock-proof CD player for our tracks (at first a Numark CDN88, I think)… and then I upgraded to a Pioneer CDJ-800. And then eventually, I just wound up using a Dell laptop for the tracks. The audio interface only had a cable from the RIGHT output, into a direct box, into the mains. My earbuds and/or headphones plugged into the headphone output of the interface, so I got the click in the left-ear only, and the music in both. I played drums mostly, or did keys/guitar, depending on the song. This is the standard way to do backing tracks, but… you’re stuck with exactly that track… so you better start when you need to, and not come in late with vocals, or early… the backing track is unforgiving (a way to combat this is to use something like Ableton Live… where you can have different “Scenes” to trigger variations of verses/choruses/jam parts, etc).

I did this same backing track setup, also in an indie/electronic trio I was in, in 2007. We made tracks in FL Studio, and used that same workhorse Dell laptop live, running Ableton. Singer played bass, guitarist played guitar, and I drummed, sang vocal harmony, and triggered the tracks.

It’s relatively easy to prepare tracks for live use, if you’re using a laptop, especially if you spread the tracks to more than one– drums, bass, keys, extra guitars… it’s easy to mix live after a rehearsal with a PA system… you can see what’s too loud, and what’s not loud enough, and take notes, or fix on the go using automation. However, if you’re making tracks for a foot pedal or hardware unit (one simple mono mix)… you’ll need a lot of trial and error, and you’ll need to get the mixes PERFECT… again, a PA system or a friend’s in addition to yours, would help nail the balance of the tracks, against the live instruments and vocals.

The crappy thing about preparing these tracks for the hardware stuff such as the Roland or Boss stuff is that the WAVs need to be completely “blank” and devoid of metadata. Otherwise you’ll run into errors such as “unsupported format!” when you try to import them into the SDP-SX, SP-404SX, or RC-300.

I hate all this tech shit… and there isn’t much information on google about it.. so I wanted to try and help anyone, if I could… it’s partially for me, to help remember what I need to buy and do, but mostly for you… to help aide you in your quest for live performance as a duo or solo artist. Not all of us are blessed with musician friends that have the time and talent to do what we need them to do, at moment’s notice… haha.

More to come! Hope this helps some of you so far…

RECORDING: Hardware samplers vs. laptops!

So, I’m always on the hunt for gear that makes my job as a musician/music producer and songwriter a lot easier/cheaper. Laptops are essential, these days. And/or hardware samplers… but, which is better?

For live use… a lot of people recommend using hardware samplers… because there’s basically like zero chance of a crash. Yes, but…

If you take care of your laptop, how often do you actually find it crashing or slowed down? Zero percent of the time? That’s kind of me, in a nutshell. If you know what you’re doing… it’s about as reliable (if not more than) a hardware sampler. I don’t have pop-up ads on my shit, and the audio playback is precise… because I tweak it, and I monitor my internet activity… and/or I don’t go on the web at all, on a music-making laptop.

Let’s say you’re in a duo (basically all bands I’m in are duos)… and, say you need backing tracks to fill out your sound. There’s only two people… playing two instruments and singing… so… you might need something to play a beat, or layered background/countermelody vocals, and/or keyboard parts, or basslines…. that’s where a laptop or hardware sampler come in. Most duos are often either two guitars/singing… or a guitar and a piano, and singing. Or, a mix of all (such as duos like Shovels & Rope). But most often, it’s either two guitars and singing, or guitar/singer, and pianist/singer.

Duo Examples:
First Aid Kit (guitar/vocals, and keyboards/vocals)
Angus and Julia Stone (guitar vocals, and guitar/vocals)
Wye Oak (bass/guitar/vocals, and drums/keys/computer)
Lemolo (keys/guitar/vocals, and drummer/backing track player)
Beach House (keys/vocals/drum machine, guitar/vocals)
Goodbye Heart (keys/vocals, guitar/drum machine/vocals)

Ok… so, here are your current choices for a hardware sampler:

Korg Electribe Sampler ($400 street)
Roland SPD-SX ($800 street)
Roland SP-404SX ($500 street)
used Akai MPC1000 ($varies)
used Akai MPC500 (often less than $300 used)
Akai MPX8 or MPX16 ($100 or $200)
Pioneer/Dave Smith Toreiz SP-16 ($1500 street)

Now, here’s the problem with hardware samplers: STORAGE (or lack thereof!)

Electribe? 270 seconds, in mono (that’s about 5 minutes.. and only 5 minutes of samples…. without having to load anything. Sure, you can use a 32GB SD card… but that’s only for loading samples into RAM… which, you only have 5 minutes of storage. Only 5 minutes.

Roland SPD-SX – Price is ridiculous. But, you get 4GB of storage. That’s 720 minutes, of mono samples. Yes, you read that right. 12 hours. Now we’re talking… but… this device is useless, unless you’re a drummer. What if you’re a vocalist who just wants to lightly push a button, on a small device on a stand (I’ve seen a lot of vocalists do this.. in professional bands)? Not everyone wants to hold a drumstick the entire set…

Roland SP-404SX – A little pricey…. 2GB of storage. 360 minutes, in mono. Six hours. Possibly more, with an SD card, but I think the RAM (the internal memory) is 2GB. Not bad… not bad at all. Haven’t messed with this, so I don’t know the full capability… but, it seems like a good value… I’ve seen pro bands use this live, such as the all-woman Brooklyn indie band Teen.

Akai MPCs-– not a lot of storage (the MPC1000 was the last unit sold new until 2009… until recently when Akai has announced new (and VERY pricey) hardware samplers……. . Upgrading the ram on one of these older units to 128MB (the maximum) allows about 24 and a half minutes of mono samples. Not bad. If it’s a stereo WAV file that’s 5 minutes long (about 50MB), you can store about 4 of them in an MPC with its RAM maxed out. But that’s only 4 songs. Your set is probably 8-10 songs. Sure, you can put together a sequence with smaller samples… but that’s a lot of work. But, the MPC is tried and true… and many people use them live… still. I find the workflow to be ridiculously slow and counter-intuitive (always have, with MPCs).

Akai MPX8 and MPX16. SLOW LOADING TIMES. Bug-ridden. Crappy menus. 60MB of total storage (yeah, that’s decent– enough to fit one 5-minute stereo WAV file as a backing track, but sadly… I think each pad on each of these units can only store like a 4MB sample, per pad)…. The MPX16 is decent… but, I read it’s bug-ridden.

Pioneer/Dave Smith Toraiz SP16. Find the need and fill it? Yeah. They have. But at what cost? 8GB of flash memory, and 256MB for audio sample memory… wait.. what? I’m a little confused about that. Also, each sample can only be 32 seconds or less, long… so, forget about stereo WAV backing tracks…. A beautiful device, for sure… but… $1500? Whoa.

 

Now….. LAPTOPS.

I can get an 8GB Dell Precision laptop (quad-core i7) for only $250 used on ebay (full HD display at 1920×1080 resolution)… swap out the HD for a solid-state hard drive (525GB Crucial SSD is only $150 new)… now we’re at $400. Upgrading the RAM to 16GB from 8 is a $50 investment. $450 total, now. Pick up a used Novation Launchpad or Behringer TC64 (just like a Launchpad) for about $50. Total cost: $550. Or, if you want to trigger the samples with your feet… a Behringer FCB1010 ($150 new) or a used Line6 FBV Shortboard MKII ($125 used).

A Launchpad comes with Ableton Live Lite 9, which is powerful as hell, and free. And you can trigger ANY samples you want… size is only limited by your hard drive. Ableton will work fine on a 4GB laptop, but even better on a 16GB one.

Or, you can go the route I’m figuring out— Reaper 5, with “Playtime” (a virtual instrument designed by a hardcore Reaper fanatic, which works exactly like Ableton’s “Session View”) OR…. Reaper 5 and “Regions” (each region triggered by MIDI notes or CCs). Backing tracks are a breeze, using Reaper 5 and creating Regions from whatever audio clip is on your timeline… plus, you can infinitely loop Regions, and move onto another… and it won’t play the one you clicked to or triggered, until the current one has stopped playing.

Why the fuck would anyone buy or use a hardware sampler for live use, when a laptop is commonplace live, these days… and… a laptop with a MIDI controller is just so much more cost-effective (and the storage and options are basically unlimited)…? I would feel completely comfortable using a laptop live, especially with a solid-state hard drive in it…. why the hell not? That’s fast as hell, and rock-solid stable.

I know I’m babbling about this (it’s 2:11am and I had a huge coffee about two hours ago)… I really need to make a YouTube video talking about the pros and cons, and showing how effortlessly a laptop and MIDI controller can be used to great effect, for live…

Since I make all of my music on a computer… creating backing tracks is simply a matter of simplifying an arrangement, and muting lead vocal tracks, and/or mixing things down to a simple 5-track setup, per song (bass, drums, keys, extra guitars, backing vocals)…. I don’t have to manually re-arrange something in a hardware sequencer… and sample, re-sample… load/chop/tweak… why? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Any duos out there? Any electronic musicians who perform live? What do you use? What do you hate? Pro-laptop? Anti-laptop? Talk to me. I have 60+ readers on this blog… talk to me. Let me know you’re out there. Let’s create some kind of community, here… I want to know what you think and what you’re using.

Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

RECORDING: Technology, Sound Quality, and bad marketing

I suppose you could call this another rant….

Lately I’ve been researching a lot online (well, when don’t I… I’m a music teacher by day, so I gotta know my shit 24/7)….. and I’ve found out some truly disappointing things.

Let’s talk about 88-key digital pianos, for instance. For decades, the sound was improving, as was the feature set. Something that manufacturers NEVER cared about until recently though was having actual, usable sounds. What do I mean by usable?

Fender Rhodes
Wurlitzer 200
Grand piano
Upright piano

Good emulations of all of these instruments can be included in all of these digital pianos, even the ones for $600 (Yamahas). Yamaha recently made a tiny little toy called the Reface CP, which has great-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, CP80, Clavinet…. and some GREAT built-in, USEFUL effects, for $500. The catch? The things are tiny, with 37 mini-keys. But… the sounds are there, and quite convincing.


Now, the major gripe I have with the major digital piano manufacturers (Yamaha, specifically) is that as of a couple years ago, they removed their standard MIDI in/out ports for their pianos less than $700. Standard MIDI in-out ports are common for a reason. MIDI lets you connect one device to another. For instance, you can get a nice 88 weighted-key digital piano with standard MIDI in/out, and have it control the Reface CP, so you have superb-sounding Rhodes, Wurly, and Clavinet sounds at your disposal (without having to use the mini-keys). A blessing, live (you ever try to pick up a Rhodes piano by yourself?)

So again, Yamaha removed their standard MIDI in/out ports on all digital pianos (under $700) since 2013. Casio did, too, on their Privia line (PX-130, etc, etc). Now all they both have is “USB to HOST”, which means, they can connect to other keyboards, but only if there’s a laptop, in between.

What if you want to avoid the laptop use, especially in a live setting?

Yamaha’s P-45 is less than $400, new. Great key feel, great piano sound. No MIDI I/O. Just USB to HOST port (side note– USB is often flaky and sometimes unreliable, and never securely attaches to anything on the device-side.)

Why not put the USB to HOST port on their unmovable pianos? Happily connect your ipad to it, or your laptop, as you’ll never move those gigantic beasts, anyway (the ones with the built-in stands, like the Clavinova series). Standard MIDI I/O should definitely be on the more portable pianos and keyboards.

It always baffles me that no one has tried to make a true all-in-one product, that actually sounds damn good. The only people who have done this ar Clavia, with their Nord Stage and Electro series (specially the weighted-key versions), and then Korg, with their much-loved SV-1.

Why hasn’t Yamaha or Casio done this yet? The Casio Privia PX-5S is definitely a NICE board for the money, and the sounds are tremendous, but it’s a bit ugly, and too much button-pushing through menus.

If Yamaha merged their P45 digital piano with their Reface CP…. and put a price tag of $800-1000 on it, I’m sure thousands of (non-rich) performing musicians would pick it up.. A Nord Electro with weighted keys is nearly $3000. That’s just insane. I know the pros swear by them, but they have the money to do so. What about the rest of us?

 

In short, find the need and fill it. Ya know?

 

 

RECORDING: Trim the fat

What do I mean by this?

Stuff everyone knows, but what no one does: stop buying shit. Stop assuming the next piece of gear will make your recordings more professional and completely make your songwriting a thousand times better.

I think back to 2002-2004. I bought SO much shit.

I got a steal on a Novation Nova IIx synthesizer in late 2002. It was $999 from Sam Ash. Retailed at the time about $2500. I have no idea why it was so cheap… maybe a closeout or something. But I bought it. I loved it. I used it for a cool pad sound in the Beauty’s Confusion song “Blue Deluge”, in the chorus. And that’s all I used it for.

2524t2ec16jhjgie9nnwphdbbqvqpski252b2521257e257e60_57

A thousand dollars for a cool patch sound, and an arpeggiator that was extremely fun to fool around with. The patches were all insanely fun. It was a great analog-modeling synth.

Luckily, I was able to sell it for about $1250 after getting bored with it, a few months later.

I also remember, a few months before picking up the Nova IIx, I bought an E-Mu Proteus 2000 rackmount for $800 from Sam Ash. I even bought a $200 “super-realistic strings” chip upgrade, that allowed the rackmount to add a bunch of sounds to it. $1000 for sounds that ultimately sounded pretty damn dated, a few years later.

proteus_2000
The rackmount soon grew to be a pain in the butt, so I sold it at a loss, and instead, bought the E-Mu Proteus Keys, which was the “keyboard” version of the Proteus 2000:

This keyboard moved with me to the Philadelphia area, in 2004. I sold it about a year later, for around $300 (with the $200 string chip).

You want to hear the best part? Several years ago, E-Mu released the Proteux VX virtual instrument for free, with all the sounds from the Proteus 2000. A mere 65MB download. And it sounds exactly like the hardware.

facepalm

In late 2002, I also bought a used Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73 (had to drive three hours to pick it up). It cost only $450. I sold it about a year later for exactly the same price (someone drove two hours to pick it up). I loved that thing. They now sell for $1500 used. Should have hung onto that one. But I’ve found that cheap or free virtual rhodes instrument VSTs/plugins sound as good as the real thing.

I bought a Roland Juno-60 analog synthesizer five separate times in my life, and sold it five separate times. First one I got for only $300 (broken joystick/pitch bend). Sold for $400. The others, I bought for slightly more and sold for slightly more about 6 months to a year later. Last one I bought in 2011 cost me only $650 (locally through craigslist). Turned around and sold it for $900 five months later (also through craigslist). I’ve found the TAL U-No62 virtual synth, and its big brother, TAL U-NO-LX sound EXACTLY like the real thing. The first thing is free. The big brother’s only $40 or so. Get a cool midi keyboard that has assignable knobs, buttons and sliders, and you can control every parameter of the virtual version, and hot damn, it almost feels like and plays like the real thing.

I have a habit of doing this a lot. Oftentimes it’s just to make ends meet and pay bills. Sometimes it’s all about checking out gear and messing with it, and then parting ways with it with someone more excited and/or experienced.

Since I play everything, I’m prone to buying a wider variety of gear. But…

These days, my studio is so damn stripped-down, it’s ridiculous. I own a handful of gear, but only the shit I truly, truly need.

In the early 2000s, I collected synths, almost… Juno-60, Casio CZ-1000, Roland Juno-1 and Juno-2, Proteus Keys PK-6, Kawai K4, Roland D-50…. what the hell was the point? None of that shit was helping me finish songs.

I owned one microphone (one) from early 2003 to 2009. An AKG C2000B. I still use it. Past few years, I’ve bought more and more mics. They’re always useful.

Keyboard-wise? An M-Audio Oxygen 61, to control ALL of my virtual synths (most of which are freeware/great-sounding). The other keyboard I own is a Yamaha P-60 digital piano (weighted keys). I teach on it and love the feel of it. I’ve owned the same one since 2005.

Drums? I have a Pacific CX kit I play out with (white marine pearl). Got it on trade. I record all my acoustic drum stuff with a Sonor Safari bop kit. My cymbals are cheap, but awesome-sounding Paiste 404 crashes and a ride, and New Beat hi-hats by Zildjian. I own a second Sonor Safari, that I converted into an electronic/triggered kit on the cheap.

Guitars? Not many. A couple acoustics (Martin and Yamaha). I have an Agile Les Paul clone ($300 with custom Seymor Duncan pickups), and a Gibson SG Special. I used to own a Fender strat, which I miss. I have a Fender jazz bass for all my bass needs. I have a modest pedalboard with relatively cheap pedals. I have a Vox practice amp, and a Fender Deluxe Reverb ’68 reissue, for live use.

I have your typical “must-haves” for any home studio in 2015/2016– a good USB audio interface, studio monitors, dual flat-panel widescreen  displays, mic stands, different mics, a harmonizer, cheap mic preamp, and a midi drum pad (Maschine MK2)… and that M-Audio Oxygen 61.

That’s it.

Anything else is just not necessary.

Trim the fat. Utilize negative space in your home studio. Basically everything you need to record good music can be found “in the box” (on your computer). All of my effects (reverb, delay, compression, etc)… all “in the box” (mostly the stock plugins included with Reaper 4 and Reaper 5). The less options, the better.

It took me like 15 years to realize I didn’t need most of the shit I bought. Don’t be stupid like me. Research, and buy only what you need. Even if you’re a multi-instrumentalist…. you don’t need much.

 

 

 

 

 

RECORDING: Things you probably don’t need to use

Happy holidays, gang.

As I record music, I find that sometimes, certain pieces of gear hinder my progress, more than help it. You might be using the same pieces of gear, with worse results than without.

Here’s a short list:

1. A hardware compressor. Despite me having a great, USA-made hardware compressor, I find that it makes vocal tracking sound worse (and sound clipped, even without the waveform visually clipping) than without. Don’t worry, I’ve set everything totally right and it’s in the correct order in my effects chain. But, for some damn reason, it sounds like crap when I am tracking vocals live, whether it’s my vocals, or tracking other people. Do you NEED one? Probably not.

2. An expensive mic. Neumann makes a mic called the TLM-103 (it’s about $1200). A lot of the “pro” YouTube musicians out there tend to use it. I’ve tried it for a solid week (borrowed from friend) and did a lot of A/B comparison recording, and I think it sounds like a tinny piece of garbage. I honestly prefer the sound of my MXL v67g (sub-$100 Chinese condenser mic). I’ve said it to countless people… you don’t need an expensive mic. Order of importance: quality of performer, quality of song, quality of audio interface, quality of mic.

3. Expensive cymbals (for the drummers). The other day I received a demo recording from a student who attends the school I teach at, who’s been experimenting with his own music for many months. He’s recorded his (admittedly) crappy drumkit, with the 2-mic method that I demonstrated on my YouTube channel (modified Glyn Johns technique). He doesn’t have great cymbals, and complains the kit sounds like crap. As I listened the demo in my car, I was like “Whoa. This sounds really good.” I’ve recorded stuff with my kit and $250-300 cymbals, and hated the sound. Whatever he has… whatever he’s using… he should stick with it. #1 it saves money, and #2, it sounds great and gets the job done.

4. An expensive acoustic guitar. I know a few people who own $2000 Taylor acoustics, two of which I’ve recorded at my studio. And then, I know some students who own those HPL Martins (made from recycled materials). Those Martins sound like a million bucks to my ears, truly (and I’m probably going to pick one up soon). I have an $800 Yamaha acoustic that I basically hate the sound of, even though it’s almost 20 years old (and acoustic guitars usually sound better with age). I also have a $300 2012 Takamine that in my opinion, is one of the best-sounding guitars I’ve ever played (I recorded quite a few songs with it, in recent months). Do you need an $8000 Taylor, or a $6000 Martin? No. Oh, and another example– my roommate/friend received an Alvarez acoustic for free years ago, as it had a crack in it, and his neighbor couldn’t sell it even for $50. Now, about 15 years later, he plays the Alvarez all the time, and man, that guitar sounds lovely. He put a Fishman-style pickup in it and it records beautifully and stays in tune wonderfully. The crack has never gotten bigger or anything. Perfect-sounding guitar… old as hell, cracked, and sounds gorgeous recorded. Here’s a video of a dude doing a demo of the Martin 000x1AE (the most affordable full-sized Martin acoustic). Tell me this doesn’t sound damn amazing:

5. A real grand or upright piano. I’ve used countless sampled pianos throughout the years, from Steinberg’s “The Grand”, to Synthology’s “Ivory”, to ArtVista Virtual Grand, and most recently– EZ Keys “Upright” and “Grand” pianos, by Toontrack. In my opinion, they’re all perfect, and deliver the sound/vibe you need. My favorite these days is the Upright Piano by EZKeys. You don’t need to mic a real grand piano (plus it’s a pain in the ass), and chances are, the sampled pianos are going to sound better. Check the video out (by the way, you DON’T have to use the pre-made parts/loops. You can just play the piano live, via MIDI.)

6. “Real” drums. I’ve gotten a complaint recently, from a songwriter who didn’t like that I was using Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 2.0 for drum arrangements of her songs. She said they weren’t “real.” They are more real and better-sounding than miking a real kit. I explained to her that these companies go to pro studios (legendary studios), and pro engineers and drum techs tune the drums, and painstakingly mic them, just as if a real band was to record an album there. Then, a pro drummer hits each piece of the kit over 1,000 times, from extremely light, to extremely hard. They hit various parts of the head, or the cymbal, and each hit is meticulously recorded and mixed by the engineer. What you get is professionally-recorded drum performances than can be played with a midi controller or keyboard, or, you can use thousands of loops. So nothing is more “real”, than using these drum samples. Who has the money to go to a million-dollar studio, pay $150/hr to record their drumset, and be stuck with recordings, and not being able to change the beats/performances after the fact? Superior 2.0 gives you complete creative flexibility, and it’s especially useful for people who may not be able to play drums at all. It costs around $300 (or less), and expansion kits can be bought from $40-80 each (and they always have sales, from major online retailers, etc). That’s a hell of a deal, considering the quality and flexibility you get. Yes, I do mic my acoustic kit sometimes (depending on my needs), but 98% of the drums in my recording are from Toontrack’s Superior 2.0. Watch videos and learn about it at www.toontrack.com. And check out this video to show the process:

7. Real vintage synths. Over the last 10 years, I’ve owned a Roland Juno-60 five separate times (yes, five times). The first time I bought it, it was $350, and had a broken pitch bend/mod stick. Sold that, bought it again 3 years later for about $500 (mint condition). Repeat the process a few times, upping the price each time. Last one I bought for about $650 in 2011. Turned around and sold it for $850 in 2012. Why did I keep buying and selling it? Because I kept finding virtual instrument versions which rivaled it, for either free, or a fraction of the cost. Bonus- the virtual instrument has complete midi flexibility (quantizing, arpeggio sync, etc). The real Juno-60 does not have this, and needs a $300 retrofit kit, on top of the cost of the synth (which averages at $1000 used, these days). At first, I was using the Togu Audio Line “Uno-62”, which is a freeware emulation of the Roland Juno-60. Then, I discovered his commercial synth, the “Uno-LX” version 1, and now version 2. Once I routed my M-Audio Oxygen 49 midi controller to control most of the most-used parameters on the Uno-LX (sliders and buttons controlling the synth/arpeggiator stuff, and the 8 knobs controlling the ADSR envelope, and other functions), it is the exact same sound as a real Juno-60, with so much more midi capability and functionality. Cost? Around $50. You do not need a real vintage synth. They’re cool, aesthetically, but if you’re on a budget, these emulations are exactly the same. Listen to hardware/software comparisons here: http://kunz.corrupt.ch/products/tal-u-no-lx

Happy holidays!

RECORDING: Tips for making hip-hop

As some people know, I’m a huge fan of good hip-hop. I’ve made instrumental hip-hop for over a decade, and I guess my biggest “claim to fame” is my trip-hop duo Beauty’s Confusion (active from 2001-2006), which had a huge hip-hop influence, beat-wise.

Just wanted to share some tips I’ve picked up along the way. This is for people who want to make some good stuff, like Premier, Q-Tip (Tribe Called Quest), Dilla, Pete Rock, Stoupe The Enemy of Mankind, and all that good stuff (the first four, which many call the “golden-era” of hip-hop… and all five who many consider as the top 5 hip-hop producers of the last 25 years… it’s tough to argue that).

1. Collect vinyl and/or jazz/soul/ambient/prog/funk music from the 50s to the early 80s! Whether it be actual vinyl from thrift stores or bargain bins of good record shops (50 cents to $1 per record), or if you like to “e-dig” (believe me, you can find vinyl rip blogs if you do no more than 30 minutes of searching)… it’s worth looking into. The art of sampling is exactly that: the art. Sure, many people might say “well, you didn’t write it, and that’s stupid.” For those people, maybe you can simply skim this post… or ignore it entirely. Sampling and “sample chopping” is what makes for the best hip-hop, in my (and MANY others’) opinion.

2. Collect hip-hop-related royalty-free sample libraries! These are great sources for sampling and chopping, and you never have  to worry about legal trouble (well, most of the time. Some libraries contain uncleared samples, which you have to watch out for)… some great sites include http://www.bigfishaudio.com (look for their sales), http://www.soundsonline.com, and http://www.timespace.com. Another KILLER resource is http://www.rawcutz.com (Loopmasters / E-Lab/Equipped Music partnership). You can never, ever have too many samples.

3. Listen to GOOD hip-hop. the producers mentioned above, plus artists like Eric B and Rakim, Tribe Called Quest, Molemen, Buck 65, Boogie Down Productions / KRS-One, Geto Boys, Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, J-Live, Blueprint, Bluebird, Sole (and most of Anticon’s earlier output), Jedi Mind Tricks (could be the most underrated hip-hop group of all-time). You’ll be amazed at what you can learn, by simply listening.

4. Get a 4×4 drum pad controller (MIDI interface) — On the cheaper (but VERY useful) side: Akai MPD18, Akai MPD26, Akai MPD32, M-Audio Trigger Finger (get all of these used to save a good amount of dough), Korg Padkontrol (same– they average $100 used)…. or on the more expensive side– Native Instruments Maschine MK2 (Mikro or regular), or Maschine Studio. Stay away from the new Akai stuff– don’t believe the hype. It’s buggy and you can’t produce beats as fast as with Maschine, or with one of those controllers + a VST sampler such as Poise, Shortcircuit, or Motu BPM. A computer, plus a midi pad controller (and maybe a 49-key midi keyboard) is pretty much all you need to make good hip-hop (a little research goes a very long way).

5. Watch beat production videos on YouTube (especially beat production tutorials). Man, I love how people are so damn HELPFUL these days…. some of the tutorials might be on the boring side, but others are incredibly awesome. One of my favorites is Andrew Schellman’s tutorials with Maschine Mikro:  http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7ODfLapPcJt1Hjvbm_w0XD9u2mDKWKLF

This is just a simple tips list…. eventually I might do a “basics of hip-hop production” tutorial on YouTube… there are so many already, but I like to give people really affordable (CHEAP) options. When I was in highschool, none of this was possible for me financially…. 2013 offers a lot to the aspiring beatmaker/producer and all musicians/home recordists in general. You guys don’t know how lucky you have it. That’s one of the reasons I started this blog. Information is everywhere…. it’s a shame if talented people don’t put all the good info to use.

RECORDING: Cable mess, disorganization, laziness

I’m pretty clean and organized, in general. I HATE WIRES and CABLES and all that fuckin’ SPAGHETTI MESS. I hate tripping over them, I hate running them all over my room and I hate when they lazily lay on top of some of MIDI controllers on my studio desk, when I’m running some mics to my audio interface (which is rack-mounted right below my monitors on the right side of my desk). No matter what I try to do, wires and cables are everywhere. And I’m just one lone dude… with not a lot of studio shit! A very modest, humble setup. But the wires always seem to be ten times the amount of gear I have. But this is a good thing….

What’s so good about cables all over the place? They’re running stuff that is ACTIVE and PLUGGED IN and READY. Allow me to explain…..

How much music do I work on or find myself completing when my studio is completely clean, with no visible wires to trip over? None. I don’t work on music when my studio is clean and picture-perfect. When I have wires and cables laying around…. (my guitar pedalboard plugged into my amp and completely in my walking path, drum trigger cables running haphazardly all over my electronic drumkit, all of my mics plugged in and mic stands completely in my way on most days (but not in the way at all on the days I want to record, bass plugged in, USB cables powering MIDI gear)…… I GET SHIT DONE.

If everything’s plugged in and ready to go, I am inspired to work.

So what do you do, if you’re like me and you friggin’ hate cables and tripping over them? Get longer cables. Run them against the wall. Unplug the gear (and put it on a shelf or something) that you know you won’t use for the next ten songs you write. Move the mic stand ever so slightly so it’s not directly in the walking path. Or just briefly unplug the XLR cable from the mic itself. Organize your studio so it is logically laid out where you WON’T have cables running across the middle of the studio. No matter what…. LEAVE SHIT PLUGGED IN. It’s not like it’s going to use that much more electricity…. Leave the shit plugged in, and always have your recording software open and ready with a template that suits your style/tracking methods best. Have fresh batteries in your little SD card field recorder (for those quick ideas… I love my damn Zoom H2, still).

I’m mainly writing this post because I hate being so friggin’ clean and organized…. because my head/brain certainly isn’t. When I just get down and dirty and IN THE MOMENT (headphones tangled up in the mic cable, guitar tangled up in those two…) I get shit done. Because I’m sitting there in my chair, making stuff happen and NOT GIVING A SHIT ABOUT THE MESS. I know the cables are tangled and in the way, but if I don’t need to get up immediately, who gives a fuck? Press record in my recording software and just GO. If I have to get up to piss or grab some water, then what I should do is slowly, carefully untangle the shit, or just unplug the cable from the source or destination, and just get it out of the way temporarily. When I’m back, I plug shit back in and stay in the zone.

Too much time is wasted, being a clean/neat-freak. It’s not like I have ten guests coming over, or I’m hosting a dinner party in my recording studio. If it’s a mess, it doesn’t fuckin’ matter. You’re likely to stay in the zone when shit’s plugged in and cables are everywhere. You see the mess and think… “cool. I’m inspired. Let’s do this.”

Right now, I need to finish some fucking songs. And guess what? So do you.

So get to it. And fuck the cable mess!!!

RECORDING: Using a Korg Nanokontrol 2 with Reaper

Just picked up a Korg nanoKONTORL2 for portable transport and track control (mouseless) when I’m recording on the go with my lappy. I saw that the nanoKONTROL 2 manual had templates for various well-known DAWs (Cubase, Live, Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Logic/Garageband, and Sonar…) but of course, not one for Reaper.

Fear not, Reaper fans!

All you have to do before connecting the nanoKONTROL 2 to your computer is hold down the SET MARKER button along with the main RECORD button, and then plug in your USB cable. This will load the template for Cakewalk Sonar. You’ll notice the record button blinks a few times after it’s connected, to let you know you’re in Sonar mode. Although that template is designed for Cakewalk Sonar, it works perfectly for Reaper, if you set Reaper correctly:

1. Start Reaper of course… and then go to Reaper’s PREFERENCES (CTRL-P), go into Control Surfaces (left menu, near the bottom).

2. Click ADD and Reaper will ask you what kind of Control Surface Mode…. choose “Mackie Control Universal.”

3. Then choose your MIDI input and output to be “nanoKONTROL2”. Done.

Now, once you’ve exited Preferences, you’ll see that the nanoKONTROL2’s buttons respond perfectly in Reaper… all mute/solo/arm record buttons work for every track, the faders work for the track volumes, and the knobs work for the track panning. You’ll also notice the transport controls (RECORD, PLAY, STOP, REWIND, FF) all work in Reaper as well, and of course.. the SET MARKER and marker left/marker right buttons all work, too.

If you have more than 8 tracks loaded (say, 16, or 24), you can use the TRACK < > buttons to navigate your track groups.

Yay, Korg.. you scored again. First with the PadKONTROL, and now with the new Nano series. Love ya.

RECORDING: Home Studio Setups At Various Costs, For Noobs

Home recording is becoming more and more affordable… it’s ridiculous just how affordable it’s becoming. My #1 inspiration these days (musically, and music-business-wise) is Jack Conte of Pomplamoose… he said it best (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t remember his exact words… something to the effect of):

“There has never been a better time to be a musician. All the tools are there. You’d be a fool not to use them.”

With that said, I’ve done a lot of thinking about setups, and eventually I’ll put up some YouTube videos talking more about it, but in the meantime… let’s do three levels of home studio budgets… from the VERY bottom/minimum ($350-450)… to $1500. Let’s assume you use a laptop, and not a desktop… so we’ll narrow the audio interface choices to USB interfaces, instead of internal PCI cards (though I highly recommend PCI interfaces over USB interfaces — less recording issues, usually, but these days, USB interfaces are quite stable).

Chances are, you already have a guitar and/or keyboard or piano… so, that’s one less thing (or two) to buy!!

Ultra-Low Budget ($350-450)

– Computer (you already have it… cost: FREE)
– Recording Program (aka DAW)
For PC: Reaper recording software (download it legally and for free, HERE)
For Mac: Garageband (comes free with your Mac)
– Audio Interface (spend no more than $150)–
recommendations (the first six I highly recommend above the others):
Alesis M1 Active 320 USB Monitors/Audio Interface ($90) – not much bass, but speakers PLUS audio interface in one! Plus they sound great!
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface ($149)
Presonus Audiobox
USB Audio Interface ($149)
Tascam US200
USB Interface ($149)
Tascam US122 MKII
USB Audio Interface ($109)
NOTE: some people have had problems with Tascam, but I dig their stuff.

Yamaha Audiogram USB Audio Interface/Mixer ($129)
Lexicon Lambda
USB Audio Interface ($119)
M-Audio Fast Track MKII USB Audio Interface ($119)
Roland Tri-Capture USB Audio Interface ($129)
– Sennheiser HD202 headphones ($30) – they sound great, they’re lightweight and cheap
– a decent, cheap condenser mic– don’t spend more than $130! (recommendations: MXL V67g, Octava MK-219 (available used/ebay only, for around $130), MXL 770, Studio Projects B1, CAD GXL2200, MCA SP-1, etc)
– mic stand (preferably a boom mic stand), pop filter, mic cable (total $40)

Low-to-Medium Budget ($600-800)

all the stuff I listed above, plus:

– a pair of cheap, powered/active studio monitors (if you don’t buy those Alesis M1s (recommendations: Behringer MS16 ($75), Samson MediaOne 3A ($100)
– a midi keyboard (recommendations: Alesis QX49 or M-Audio Oxygen 49 – each is $150) if you like to lay down ideas on a keyboard or mainly write on a piano, or…
– a midi pad controller (such as the Korg PadKontrol (highly recommended – $170) or Akai MPD18 – $100) for all you hip-hop producers and beatmakers out there

Higher Budget ($1250-1500)

all the stuff I listed above, plus:

– a good mic preamp (try to spend $500 or less)
recommendations:
Presonus TubePre Version 2
($130)
Golden Age Pre73 MKII ($350)
Focusrite ISA One ($500)
used/ebay: M-Audio DMP3, Art MPA Gold (good luck finding one, no one wants to part with theirs), True Systems P-Solo
– a second widescreen flat-panel monitor for your computer if you don’t already have one ($150). Once you go dual-monitor, you never go back to a single.

BONUS: The Hip-Hop Beatmaker Budget (up to $1500)

WITHOUT an “MPC” – you don’t need one, and you’ll waste money and time if you invest in one (even used). Stick to software and MIDI controllers… more RAM, more storage, more possibilities, and much faster to put together beats than the “traditional” way. Any hip-hop producer worth his weight and know-how would agree. I will put up a video on YouTube sometime in the future clearly demonstrating the difference and why software is better.

– Computer (you already have it… cost: FREE)
– Recording Program (aka DAW)
For PC: Reaper recording software (download it legally and for free, HERE)
For Mac: Garageband (comes free with your Mac)
– Audio Interface (spend no more than $150)–
recommendations (the first six I highly recommend above the others):
Alesis M1 Active 320 USB Monitors/Audio Interface ($90) – not much bass, but speakers PLUS audio interface in one! Plus they sound great!
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface ($149)
Presonus Audiobox
USB Audio Interface ($149)
Tascam US200
USB Interface ($149)
Tascam US122 MKII
USB Audio Interface ($109)
NOTE: some people have had problems with Tascam, but I dig their stuff.

Yamaha Audiogram USB Audio Interface/Mixer ($129)
Lexicon Lambda
USB Audio Interface ($119)
M-Audio Fast Track MKII USB Audio Interface ($119)
Roland Tri-Capture USB Audio Interface ($129)
– Sennheiser HD202 headphones ($30) – they sound great, they’re lightweight and cheap
– a decent, cheap condenser mic– don’t spend more than $130! (recommendations: MXL V67g, Octava MK-219 (available used/ebay only, for around $130), MXL 770, Studio Projects B1, CAD GXL2200, etc)
– mic stand (preferably a boom mic stand), pop filter, mic cable (total $40)
– a pair of powered/active studio monitors (recommendations: Behringer MS16 ($75), Samson MediaOne 3A ($100) or if you really want to go all out, get KRK Rokit 5s for $300/pair (I love mine).
– a midi keyboard (recommendations: Alesis QX49 or M-Audio Oxygen 49 – each is $150)
– Native Instruments Maschine MIDI pad controller/software ($600)
– a collection of vinyl records, and/or royalty-free sample libraries

Be sure to read everything on www.tweakheadz.com and also, join the forum at www.gearslutz.com, to get very helpful tips and advice on how to get started if you’re completely new to this!

RECORDING: MIDI controllers don’t “make” sound by themselves, they “control” sounds in a program

I can’t count how many times I’ve come across people (personally or YouTube commenters) who buy a MIDI keyboard controller (M-Audio Axiom, Oxygen, etc)… or a pad controller (Akai MPD18, Korg PadKontrol, M-Audio Trigger Finger)…. and wonder why they’re not getting “sound” from it.

News flash: MIDI CONTROLLERS DON’T MAKE SOUNDS on their own. They need a software program that has sounds built in to it (aka “virtual instrument”), to “control” the sounds of that virtual instrument. That’s why they’re called MIDI CONTROLLERS. Midi controllers merely send data to and from the computer. They do not have sounds built-in.

I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but seriously, a MIDI controller is not something you can just buy and expect to work right out of the box. You have to have a basic understanding of how a MIDI controller “communicates” with a recording program/sequencer (aka “DAW” which stands for “digital audio workstation”) .  DAWs interact with MIDI controllers in basically the same way, but unless you know the ins and outs of using a DAW or virtual instruments, it’s kind of overwhelmingly confusing. Ultimately, it’s a matter of research and reading, something people don’t do enough of, when they are getting into home recording. You know the old expression RTFM? If you’ve never see those letters before, they stand for “read the fuckin’ manual.” Haha. Ok, all jokes aside…

Here’s a great YouTube video clearly explaining what a MIDI controller is, and how it interacts with Garageband for Mac. Please pay close attention to it.

Here’s another great video, by Lewin at GaragebandandBeyond (YouTube):

And here’s a great page on the Tweakheadz website that explains what MIDI is, what it can and can’t do, and how to set it up in your home studio (very detailed):

http://www.tweakheadz.com/how_to_get_started_with_midi.html

Hope this helped… if it’s still confusing, it’s a good idea to google your butt off and find out as much as you can about MIDI controllers and how to use them in your setup. A combination of that, and having a friend who already has a home studio and knows his or her way around it is another great thing. Good luck!